The Forbidden City, Beijing

Christianity in China

Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity

Book Review of: Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. xi + 382 pages. Paper. ISBN 978-0-19-518961-2.

T
his first volume in the Oxford Studies in World Christianity, also edited by Professor Sanneh, has set the highest possible standard. The author’s elegant writing, impressive scholarship, expansive outlook, and incisive analysis combine to make this a book to read and re-read. A full survey being impossible, my review will only highlight a few major features of Sanneh’s overall thesis, with a focus on the insights they provide for students of Chinese Christianity.

As the sub-title indicates, Sanneh builds his discussion of World Christianity upon a few “pillars.” Presented in roughly historical sequence, they are: The “missionary” pillar of the New Testament and the early church; the “pillar of historical intelligibility” as applied to the encounter with Classical culture; the “comparative” pillar of “the Christian movement in Islamic perspective”; the “trans-Atlantic” pillar of “Old World precedents and New World directions”; the “colonial” pillar of the modern missions movement; the pillar of charismatic renewal; the “primal” pillar of “resurgence and the new order in West Africa”; the “critical” pillar, dealing with “civilization and the limits of mission”; and finally the “bamboo” pillar manifest in “Christian awakening and the New China.”

Of particular interest to Sanneh is the “vernacular” pillar, present from the beginning, which allowed for the “translation” of Christianity into the languages, thought-forms, and deep cultural structures of societies in which it became implanted.

The author, who is Professor of History and World Christianity at Yale University, makes little attempt to provide a comprehensive history of the spread of Christianity around the world over the past two millennia, though this rich volume would be a good start for such a study. Instead, he offers us critical perspective on certain key men (and women), moments and movements, particularly as they illustrate the indigenization of the gospel. Naturally, Sanneh draws upon his own background and extensive research to reflect long and deeply upon Christianity in Africa. Perhaps this should not have surprised me, but I discovered that the parallels with China are numerous and striking.

As Philip Jenkins points out, “throughout, Sanneh asks the critical question: How can we reconceive Christianity in a way that frees it from its European and imperial contexts, permitting the faith to adapt to the kaleidoscopic realities of different societies around the world?”

With that introduction – and invitation to enjoy the pleasures of this intellectual banquet for yourself – let us move to what we might learn about Chinese Christianity from this brilliant volume. We’ll follow the order of the book for convenience and historical sequence.

In the first chapter, the author makes two major points: "Christianity [has] no inalienable birthplace and the church no territorial patrimony." It brings new forms of social life “without the necessity of a promised land or the advantage of cultural privilege.” That is, Christians do not – or should not - sink their identity into any one nation, nor do they place their reliance on the favor of any government. The Roman Empire, seeing “religion as state monopoly” and intent upon controlling all public exercise of religion, “saw Christianity as a structural anomaly, and dealt with it as a political problem.” Recent analyses of China’s religious policy have come to similar conclusions.

These two competing ideas of this new and “foreign” faith brought the early church into conflict with the Roman state, with multiple persecutions trying both sides for almost three hundred years. During this period, however, Christians were growing both in numbers and in their penetration of Hellenistic culture with the new wine of the gospel. Philanthropic activities by Christians began to win public, and even official, recognition and admiration, while the superior morality and civic obedience of believers slowly allayed suspicions.

Christianity gained the allegiance of more and more different peoples within the Empire, and even burst the boundaries of Roman control to attract adherents in neighboring countries among a variety of cultures, proving itself to be a truly universal faith It placed “God at the center of the universe of cultures, implying equality among cultures and the necessarily relative status of cultures vis-à-vis the truth of God.” There is no inherently superior culture, nor one so “backward” that it can be ignored or despised – another major theme in the book.

One major contribution was a “transformed kinship” and “a new sense of social solidarity” brought about by baptism into the church of Christ. A fragmented Roman empire needed just such a social anchor to prevent total social disintegration. One thinks of China today.

Later, monasteries “redefined mainstream culture” by “hammering out distinctive styles of religious living.” Indeed, true Christianity will have the same formative influence wherever it is truly lived. At first, it spread among Arabs partly by taking advantage of the deep commitment to hospitality, which led naturally to “culturally prescribed ways of acknowledging God’s unfathomable hospitality.” Alas, without the translation of the Bible into Arabic, Christianity was left powerless against the advance of Islam – the same fate that befell the first three attempts to root the Gospel in Chinese culture.

Such Christianity as did develop in Arab societies was so shallow that “an indigenous Arab church failed to arise.” Meanwhile, the Eastern Greek church was hopelessly split by theological controversy and almost totally embroiled in national politics to present a home to Arab believers. The connection of the faith with an alien empire made its acceptance by Arabs all the more difficult.

“Things were different in Ethiopia,” where the Bible was early translated; identification with ancient Israel helped to give a sense of distinctive worth in a world dominated by Islamic nations; and the dynamic character of Christianity “offered a convincing rationale for established societies, as well as for those undergoing rapid internal change.” “The church provided the essentials of social security” and “a new sense of social solidarity.”

As Muslim armies attacked the “Christian” West and Byzantium, they encountered a church that had not conquered the Roman Empire, but had been itself conquered by the empire. “The empire … converted Christianity.” In the early modern period, Muslims saw European Christianity as mostly committed to the good life, which “demanded as its price the repudiation of God.” How true is that today?

Fast forward to the Age of Exploration – or the beginning of Western imperialism, as it is more properly called. On the one hand, as Sanneh shows at great length, the ties that bound the missionaries to their rapacious home countries did untold damage to the cause of the Gospel. On the other, the missionary movement itself led to a radical re-thinking of the connection between Gospel and culture. In the end, acceptance of Christ by peoples of Latin America, Africa, and Asia “transformed Christianity into a world religion,” though Westerners were long in recognizing this fundamental fact.

In both Africa and China, the message of the missionaries was believed, often despite the methods and ungodly ways of some missionaries. Local believers saw that Jesus was not bound to the white man’s culture; that they were valued in God’s sight; that essential human dignity was affirmed for them by the Scriptures; and that they could overcome their anger at European imperialism by forgiving their former masters in the name of Christ. All the while, they have been struggling with what it means to be both African – or Chinese, or Indian - and Christian, both affirming some aspects of their traditional cultures and denying others.

After the calamitous disaster of World War I, non-western peoples lost much of their respect for European civilization, and the Christians had to face increased pressure just because they had embraced a Western religion; they have mostly come through that phase, however, and now the church is firmly planted as an indigenous movement. As part of that de-linking with missionaries, both in Africa and in China independent, and mostly charismatic, leaders and movements have sprung up, outside the confines of mainstream mission organizations. Mutual suspicion and even criticisms have marked this stage of “growing up,” but now these movements are being held accountable by other Christians within their own cultures, with regard to both doctrinal orthodoxy and biblical morality.

Though appreciative of the efforts of missionary education and medical work, Sanneh shows how John Nevius exposed the fallacies of relying on institutions like schools and hospitals to spread the Gospel. He applauds both Nevius and Roland Allen for going back to the Bible for effective means of communicating Christ – rather than Western culture – cross-culturally.

Sanneh’s long chapter on “Christian Awakening and the New China” shows him to be an acute student of the rise of the Chinese church. He finds the Western liberal idolization of the communist revolution, with their premature announcement of the replacement of Christianity by Mao’s brand of Marxism, to be highly ironic in the light of the subsequent imploding of communism as a viable world view and the explosion of indigenous Chinese Christianity. After a long period of “appeasement” of communism and the government by both Protestant and Roman Catholic church leaders, the surge of conversions and growth of mature leadership has ushered in new era in Chinese Christian history.

He quotes a Chinese believer who observes that “the Christian idea of love has introduced a new value system in china, including the idea of repentance ‘which is lacking in Chinese culture.’” The faith has become truly indigenous, with its own leaders, Chinese Bibles, songs, and style of worship. “The church looks and feels Chinese.”

On the other hand, Sanneh is aware that a huge percent of “Christians” “said they embraced Christianity for reasons that had to do with their personal physical health” and that “the values of the Gospel … are in sharp contrast to the new Chinese values of making money and having more and more possessions.’” It seems that European Christianity has no monopoly on worldliness.

He notes David Aikman’s theory that Christianity might become “the dominant worldview of China’s senior elites,” with significant consequences for its foreign policy. For this reviewer, that prospect raises the specter of a new Chinese Constantine, who would co-opt a willingly-patriotic church and replicate the cultural captivity of Christianity that forms a major theme of this book. The fact that many Chinese believers seem to consider China as Shenzhou – “the land of God” - recalls too many tragic parallels which Sanneh has described in the earlier chapters of his book.

The author helpfully balances the usual focus on the Protestant church in China with a discussion of the Roman Catholic dialogue with China. He notes the gradual, and quickening, collapse of boundaries between the state-controlled Patriotic Association of Catholics and the Catholics who hold on to their allegiance to Rome.

Much of the fascination and complexity of this volume derives from the Sanneh’s description of the two-way process of communication that the expansion of Christianity has spawned, with a proper shattering of Western cultural and national pride, as well as a clearer understanding of the universal nature of the Gospel, as inevitable consequences. The “Christian” Western civilization that can rightly boast of many intellectual, artistic, philosophical, governmental, and even religious achievements has, in the process of the Gospel’s assimilation by people of other cultures, been also exposed as arrogant, blind to its own faults, limited in understanding of some fundamental features of biblical revelation, and woefully lacking in moral depth and integrity.

Meanwhile, the translation of the Scriptures has not only penetrated local cultures with the Gospel, but has led to a renaissance of indigenous languages and traditions. Not infrequently, the very language of the Bible infused existing languages with new life, and non-Christians found themselves using new terms and metaphors. Recent studies in the birth of modern Mandarin have documented the potent influence of the Chinese Union Version upon 20th-century literature, for example.

The traffic has gone both ways. Western missionaries quite often lost much of their cultural pride as they became more familiar with the rich tapestry of local traditions. Some rejected the Gospel altogether, but more of them received new insights into God’s revelation as they encountered different ways of thinking and living. One thinks especially of the rebuke to Western individualism presented by the value which traditional cultures place upon the claims of community; our monochrome worldview that is blind to anything that cannot be seen; our pathetic reliance upon money, power, and organizations rather than upon the Holy Spirit and the Word of God; and our shallow concept of friendship.

Indeed, the Western church, which is now so marginalized and empty of real spirituality, has begun to turn to the “younger” churches for examples of truth faith, hope, and love. Stories of Chinese Christians, such as those found in The Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (www.bdcconline.net) and the Salt & Light: Lives of Faith the Shaped Modern China series of books, have encouraged many non-Chinese to break out of our lukewarm lives into authentic discipleship.

Naturally, no one will fully agree with everything in a work of such scope, complexity and sophistication. I have questions, for example, about his frequent references to the “Hellenization” of New Testament Christianity, whereby “Jesus became a Greek philosopher” and “The Greek Christ ended up trumping the Jewish Jesus.” Such statements need more elaboration and qualification than Sanneh could allow himself, and distracted me from his major point, which is the fundamental “translatability” of the gospel message.

Like many others, Sanneh interprets the Apostle Peter’s move toward Gentiles as essentially the rejection of a cultural boundary marker. Both Peter and Paul, however, are following the example and teaching of Jesus, who from the beginning viewed the inclusion of Gentiles as the necessary corollary to what Paul would call justification by faith alone, not obedience even to the moral law of Moses. The issue is not faith versus “national custom and social affiliation,” but faith for all believers “without regard to their moral record, spotty as that is,” as Sanneh himself also says. The internal contradictions and over-generalizations of the Introduction and first chapter are, to me, the only real weakness of the book.

But even if some of his theological judgments may be questioned, Sanneh’s sure grasp of history, and especially the history of the expansion and inculturation of Christianity around the world, makes for thrilling reading. For students of world Christianity, this volume is a must.