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Christianity in China

Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China

A review of Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 978.0-300-12339-5. Hardcover. 333 pages, including notes and bibliography.

R
edeemed by Fire is a major contribution to our understanding of popular Chinese Christianity, and deserves an extended review. Perhaps a brief summary will show why:

Lian believes that most of today’s Chinese Protestant house church Christians – what he calls “popular Christianity” – bear the marks of various men (and women) and movements whose history he relates in the first few chapters. These early indigenous leaders emphasized independence from Western control; Pentecostal, or at least charismatic, ecstasies and miracles; and millennial, apocalyptic beliefs that predicted the imminent end of the world. In many ways, they resembled popular Chinese religious movements, some of which have ignited rebellions which sought to usher in the new world order by violence. Although most house church Christians today are a-political, there are plenty of sects and cults, most of which grew out of the popular Christianity whose story Lian tells, and which, if government repression continues, have the potential to spark a widespread revolt.

Beginning with the Acknowledgments, Lian Xi demonstrates both his access to primary sources and his reliance upon scholars with expertise in Chinese Christian history, such as Tao Feiya of Shanghai University. He admits that considerable “sadness” remains in his narrative, but he still marvels "at the human spirit that lifted millions of nameless people (among whom was his late father) – whose collective story I have tried to tell in this book – above the voiceless suffering and despair toward exultant hopes and radiant visions."

The dust jacket contains a bold claim that tells us why the current regime in China remains so suspicious of the Christians: “Lian shows that, with a current membership that rivals that of the Chinese Communist Party to galvanize China’s millions into apocalyptic convulsion and messianic exuberance, the popular Christian movement channels the aspirations and the discontent of the masses and will play an important role in shaping the country’s future.”

Lian aims to narrate the ways in which a small Christian population bound to foreign mission control was transformed into “a spirited, popular religion” by the indigenous groups on whom he concentrates his study.

He acknowledges that the Taiping rebellion was “disavowed by most mainline Christians,” but believes that “with its proclamation of raw supernatural power and its messianic visions,” the movement “foreshadowed the development of a viable Chinese species of Protestantism during the twentieth century.” Perhaps its greatest significance lies “in its articulation of a utopian vision that was Chinese in its nature but Christian in its vocabulary.”

Lian spares no sacred cows in his sober assessment of popular Chinese Christianity. Xi Shengmo (“Overcomer of Demons”) comes across as a mystic with messianic pretensions, kept in check by the China Inland Mission missionaries who “advised” (quotations in the original) him and restrained him from going off into doctrinal excesses.

According to Lian, the mainline Protestant denominations in the early twentieth century “embarked on progressive efforts to make Christianity relevant to the struggles of modern China.” Their limited support of nationalism and advocacy of “a social Christianity to infuse Protestant spirit and values into Chinese attempts at nation-building” yielded only “dubious” results, in contrast to the indigenous groups, whose leaders were “gripped by an indefatigable, premillennial vision” that energized their growing numbers of followers.

Beginning in chapter 2, Lian introduces us to these groups. The earliest was the True Jesus Church (TJC; also called “The Lightning from the East”), with its “exuberant Pentecostalism, apocalyptic convictions, and opportune denunciations of missionary Christianity amidst mounting anti-imperialist sentiments.” We are treated to a lively narrative of the pivotal experiences of the founder, Wei Enbo, who forged a new sect that sharply distinguished itself from all other existing groups. Aggressively seeking fresh adherents from missionary churches, especially Seventh Day Adventists, the group rapidly grew in numbers and influence.

The TJC practiced the usual Pentecostal distinctives such as tongues, healing, prophecy, trances, visions, spiritual singing and dancing; they also provided mutual support by sharing goods in common amidst the deteriorating conditions of early twentieth-century China. Contrasting their simple life with the extravagant comforts of Western missionaries, they set themselves apart from the newly-formed National Christian Council.

Early in his career, Wei had predicted the imminent return of Christ and the end of the world, which Lian shows fit nicely with previous apocalyptic popular religious movements; we shall see this feature in other groups in the study. As might be expected in a movement encouraging direct revelation by the Spirit, the TJC spawned many splinter groups before (and after) tightening its organizational structure and clarifying its doctrinal position. Equally unsurprising is their belief that the last of four ages in world history began when Wei received his first vision.

The third chapter describes the Jesus Family, which was also “energized by end-time expectations,” but marked especially by “a utopian pursuit of Christian communalism” that helped its adherents overcome wartime sufferings by “shared Pentecostal ecstasies.” The lasting significance of this group may be found in “its rapturous worship and quest for a tight-knit community that shunned the world” and “revealed a general bent of mass Christianity in Chinese” that has persisted to this day.

In chapter 4, we read about the Shandong Revival, with its “trances, visions, ‘tongues,’ and prophecies… which bore an uncanny resemblance to spirit possession in popular religion.” The movement also 
“circumvented the authority and teachings of Western missionaries, catapulted lay Chinese into positions of spiritual leadership, and became a major catalyst in the emergence of indigenous Christianity.”

Lian does a great job describing the various forms of Pentecostalism that swept through, and them from, Shandong, drawing thousands of new converts into their lively fellowships. He traces the rise and permutations of the Spiritual Gifts Society and Spiritual Gifts Movement. Like the TJC and the Jesus Family, these groups made huge inroads into missionary churches, drawing much criticism as well as praise. They also fed on anti-Western nationalism, as well as tapping into a desire for something more than the dull, even dry, worship experiences of much Chinese Protestantism at that time. Believers thrilled to the many varieties of Pentecostal ecstasies - some of which Lian says resemble Chinese popular religion – and found comfort in the prophecies of the coming of a heavenly paradise in the midst of the horrors of natural disasters and the ravages of warfare.

There were criticisms, of course. Wild emotionalism, unbridled psychological extremes, blatant nationalism, aberrant end-times teaching, “sheep stealing”: all evoked cautionary and even highly negative responses. Still, no one could deny that the movement(s) offered more than the empty formalism, liberal theology, and close attachment to Western denominations found all too often in churches connected with the National Christian Council.

Chapter 5 portrays the famous pastor and itinerant preacher, Wang Mingdao, who promoted an “individual Christianity of repentance of eschatological salvation” that possesses great influence even today. Wang had a brief encounter with Pentecostalism in his youth, but never identified with the movement; instead, he preached a message of repentance from sin, faith in Christ, strict morality, and hope in the eschatological kingdom which Christ would bring upon his return. Services in his church in Beijing were always conducted “decently and in order.”

Like the other independent leaders already studied, Wang Mingdao severely criticized Western missionaries, especially those who espoused liberalism and the so-called Social Gospel. He did not think much of their attempts to sinicize Christianity by such means as art, architecture, music, and elegant literary productions. Instead, he believed that the Gospel would be become truly Chinese only if it adhered closely to the fundamentals of biblical and historic Christian teaching. Though only moderately educated, he published a magazine, the Spiritual Life Quarterly, that exercised influence far beyond the city limits of Beijing and the low numbers of subscribers.

In this chapter, Lian also describes the denominational Christianity that was becoming increasingly independent of missionary control, even as it relied on funds from overseas and absorbed the modernist theology and Social Gospel that had gained such prominence in Europe and America. The National Christian Council, Wenshe Monthly and YMCA, were all part of a movement to reform China through education, eradication of such practices as opium use and foot-binding, and advocacy of democracy and science as means to national salvation. These were partly successful in deflecting the raging anti-foreign sentiments of the 1920s and 1930s, but offered little solace to the masses, who were suffering from the chaos of war and the collapse of government, and who found much more hope in the “otherworldly salvation” promised by Wang.

Among those he mentions are several figures from the Salt & Light series (edited by GCC Associates Carol Lee Hamrin and Stacey Bieler, published by Wipf & Stock), some of whom who may not have been as “liberal” in their theology as Lian states, though the movement of which they were a part certainly embraced modernist beliefs. Still, the Christian worldview which they accepted shaped their sense of duty towards society and directed their efforts to make life better for China’s masses.

John Sung (Lian uses the older spelling for his name, as shall this review; the more common form now is “Song”), the powerful itinerant evangelist and revival preacher, receives careful study next. Though Lian generally writes in a lively style, this chapter’s gripping intensity seems to pulsate with the energy of its subject, surely one of the most dynamic, dramatic and controversial preachers of all time. His brief but passionate career - marked by extensive, almost heroic, journeys; countless conversions; miraculous healings; white-hot emotion; and excruciating pain – captured the attention of the masses and the media alike.

Lian highlights those features of Sung’s ministry that reflect the themes of the book: Anti-Western, anti-missionary rhetoric; independence from denominational authority (though Sung remained a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church and preached in denominational churches); apocalyptic warnings; healings, exorcisms, and exuberant expression of religious emotions. Sung did not move within Pentecostal circles, for he believed that speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts were not as important as repentance, faith, and holy living. In other respects, however, he closely resembled other charismatic preachers, and had no use for the formalism, organizational rigidity, and hypocrisy (as he saw it) of denominational churches.

In this period of warfare, famine, floods, drought, and political turmoil, his message offered a kind of solace that lukewarm liberalism could not. He proclaimed both forgiveness of sins and radical discipleship, which resulted in changed lives. For the suffering masses, his assurance of a blessed life in the hereafter, rather than the dubious prospect of political, economic, and social reform trumpeted by politicians and “establishment” preachers alike, brought ultimate hope and inner peace.

Lian is especially good when he traces the spiritual, ecclesiastical, and theological background of his subjects, and particularly in the chapter on Watchman Nee. Even as he castigated missionary Christianity as lifeless and subject to Western domination, Nee drank deeply from the wells of Western “deeper life” teaching. Lian shows how Nee transmitted the doctrines he imbibed from J. N. Darby, C.I. Scofield, Jesse Penn-Lewis and T. Austin Sparks, without always giving attribution. His early dependence upon female Western missionaries is highlighted.

Nee belongs securely in the camp of the independent preachers introduced so far, though he treated his peers with disdain, considering Wang too shallow and Sung too wild. Noting the ephemeral effects of itinerant evangelism, Nee wisely built a network of fellowships to extend his influence. Lian describes Nee’s own increasingly autocratic style of leadership, shrewdly covered at first by language that implied local autonomy, but eventually assuming virtual correspondence to the Roman Papacy. He also exposes Nee’s occasional (at least) hypocrisy. It seems that he indulged in sexual license with multiple female co-workers more than once, and sometimes drove a donated Fiat car to scenic Hangzhou after urging all believers to give their possessions to the Little Flock. After the Communist victory, he “publicly ‘repented’ of the ‘sin’ of the ineffective Three Selfs …– a mere ‘theological’ but not ‘political’ independence – that the Little Flock had practiced… and had come to realize that ‘foreigners that are not imperialists are hard to find.’”

After the war ended, popular Christianity experienced strong growth, as various groups renewed activities across the nation. Under the communists, independent Protestants were increasingly restricted, until everyone was forced to join the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) which, even today, remains the only legal Protestant church. Despite what became fierce persecution, however, popular Christianity continued to grow, albeit underground. When the reform and opening-up movement began in 1979, church buildings were returned and Christian activity again became legal, at least in the TSPM.

Meanwhile, however, the former independent groups had continued to flourish, spawning a plethora of sects and cults, some of them quite outside the boundaries of orthodox, traditional Christianity. Lian’s description of these forms one of the most valuable features of the book. The “Eastern Lightning” cult is perhaps the best known, but others are almost equally scary. Of particular interest is the connection he draws between Watchman Nee’s Little Flock and the Shouters, who are associated with the Local Church of Li Changshou, Nee’s lieutenant in his later years. According to Lian, some of Nee’s more questionable ideas and actions took place after Li entered the picture.

The situation today is quite complex, since both the True Jesus Church and the Little Flock are often allowed to meet under the auspices of the TSPM, while other groups, such as the Shouters, are vigorously opposed by the government, which considers them xie jiao, evil cults.

While I generally agree with Lian’s thesis, I have three problems with this book. First, it occasionally seems that his attempts to connect these independent movements with popular Chinese religion, though basically on the right track, are a bit far-fetched. It might have been better to go a bit deeper, and show how the fundamentally materialistic, this-worldly, and pragmatic nature of all Chinese religion, predisposes even Christian teachers to focus on tangible benefits of believing in Christ (such has healing, exorcism, and a changed society). This, in the opinion of many, constitutes the deepest link between much Chinese Christianity – both in its popular and in the more “Social Gospel” forms - and the general religious environment.

Second, it does seem to me that he is sometimes bit unbalanced in his treatment. Lian seems to follow Alvyn Austin’s acerbic take on Xi Shengmo’s opium-curing efforts, his own experiences, and the effectiveness of his evangelistic ministry. I wonder how, if Lian and Austin are right, D.E. Hoste and other CIM leaders, who were no fools, could have been so thoroughly deceived.

There are other questionable statements as well. For example, he correctly notes that the “most favored nation” provision of the treaty that gave Roman Catholic priests and bishops status equal to that of their Chinese government counterparts also bestowed this privilege upon Protestants. But he does not say that the Protestants both protested this provision, and mostly refused to take advantage of it themselves.

Throughout, Lian displays an ambivalent attitude towards the indigenous Christian leaders whose story he relates. On the one hand, he clearly admires their courage in charting a new path, free of missionary control, and he repeats their criticisms of the missionaries with no qualification. On the other, he writes in a rather caustic style, apparently not agreeing with the fundamentalist views of the people he describes, and frequently inserting comments that evince either suspicion of their motives or outright disdain for their theology and some of their actions. He repeats charges leveled against them by critics, often without refutation, so that you are left in doubt about their accuracy.

The large gifts collected at Song’s meetings are an example: Did he actually benefit from them personally? The evidence indicates otherwise, but Lian lets the implication hang as a shadow. Again: Was Song a highly-emotional, sometimes overwrought “genius,” or a deranged “madman”? Lian takes no sides on this, when we have reason to believe the former, not the latter.

It is not clear to me why he repeatedly describes Wang Mingdao as “obsessed” with strict morality (he rightly observes that both liberals and fundamentalists were moralistic), or how he can speculate with such confidence on Wang’s motives for distancing himself from Western-dominated churches. Much more difficult to accept is his statement that Wang Mingdao survived the “Japanese occupation of Beijing with “fortitude and a stroke of good luck.” He correctly relates how Wang refused to submit to the Japanese order to join the puppet church organization, but doesn’t show how this can be called “luck,” rather than courage and adherence to principle.

The statement that “independent evangelists like John Sung and Wang Mingdao, on the other hand, withdrew deeper into their search for other worldly salvation,” (page 155) raises questions. Does he mean that they didn’t talk about the effects of spiritual salvation upon life in this world? If so, that contradicts his own account. More likely, he merely wants to focus on their eschatology, which is legitimate, but why use the loaded word, “withdrew”?

The war-time independent preachers “furthered the trend in Chinese Protestant Christianity – arising out of avowed biblical literalism – toward apocalyptic gloom and messianic fervor.” This is a strong sentence, but what does it mean? For these believers, the revelation (“unveiling”; the meaning of “apocalypse”) of Christ at the end of time brought strong comfort and joy, not gloom. And what is “messianic fervor”? A zeal to preach Christ as Messiah, that is, Savior? Or a messiah complex? Lian is unclear, but leaves an impression that cannot be favorable.

The author says repeatedly, furthermore, that they “proselytized” – a negative term - rather than “evangelized.”

Finally, and most importantly, it seems that needed complexity has been sacrificed for the sake of clarity. For Lian, it all boils down to the preaching of “apocalyptic gloom” and “other-wordly salvation,” as the key distinctive message of popular Protestantism. Really? Both Wang Mingdao and John Sung emphasized the necessity of moral reformation, and the centrality of the Cross of Christ far outshone eschatological preaching in Sung’s sermons.

As a result, I have an ambivalent reaction to this work. On the one hand, I greatly appreciate the depth and breadth of his research and his willingness to take on “sacred cows” and tell the truth, “warts and all.” In every chapter, including those on people about whom I have done some reading, I learned much that was new.

On the other hand, at least in the case of Wang Mingdao and John Sung, his more-than-mildly disdainful approach does not seem sufficiently objective or even, sometimes, fair and accurate. While not obviously sympathetic to the liberal Christianity prevalent among denominational churches in China, Lian appears to share some of the contempt of their current heirs in the academy towards evangelical Christianity. Though filled with facts and persuasive analysis, this account reminds one of Alvyn Austin’s jaundiced treatment of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission: It describes much of what happened, but does not quite get to the heart of either the leading characters nor the real reasons why they exerted such influence.

For example, his accurate portrayal of John Sung’s bad temper is not balanced by any mention of Sung’s private agony over this sin, or his public apology on more than one occasion. Nee may have been a hypocrite, but he would not be the first Christian leader to be guilty of that sin. Nor would he be the only autocratic Chinese Christian leader. And there was obviously something about his speaking and writing that left a deep impression upon millions, as it still does today. Perhaps one has to have a certain sympathy in order to understand.

Still, this is a very important book, for the overall thesis – that popular Christianity, with its focus on spiritual ecstasies, healing, and preaching about the end times, bears some disturbing likenesses to popular Chinese religion - seems sound. Considering the real aberrations of theology and practice that Lian has recorded, and the possible threat to social order posed by some of these groups, perhaps his overall negative tone is understandable. One wonders, also, whether he might have seen and experienced some things first hand that left a bad taste in his mouth.

My guess is that Redeemed by Fire will provoke not a little consternation among Local Church leaders in the U.S., who have recently succeeded in having the label of “cult” withdrawn by leading evangelical spokesmen. If Lian is accurate, however, the Shouters’ designation as a cult by the Chinese government might have some merit – a possibility that will be angrily denied by Li Changshou’s disciples, who have not been shy about taking critics to court, claiming that this label will cause needless suffering to their brothers and sisters in China.

Redeemed by Fire will also probably prompt Chinese government officials to think carefully about their religious policies. On the one hand, there are some pretty wild and potentially dangerous cults out there; on the other, the author rightly observes that if the government treats a group as subversive, it might eventually become so. Furthermore, major house church “networks” vary in their conformity to traditional orthodox Christian faith and practice, and it’s not always easy for the government to distinguish a harmless religion from a potential rival for power.

One major distinction that must be made is between preaching about the imminent return of Christ, which is an orthodox belief, and deciding to hasten the process by armed revolt. Merely having sincere convictions about eschatology does not indicate that a group sees itself in “messianic” terms. Faith in a coming Messiah is very different from pretending to be the coming savior and taking up the sword to prove it. I am afraid that Lian frequently fails to make this crucial point.

This volume should cause Christians outside of China to tone down their rosy rhetoric about Chinese house churches. This is a very large array of diverse movements, with a great deal of variety, some of it not worthy of the name “Christian.” Discretion is in order as we try to understand what has been happening in China over the past few decades.

Everyone familiar with the Chinese house churches knows just how a-political they have been – so far. It would be a great shame if, because of history, government fears that they will coalesce into a popular rebellion with aspirations to political power leads to greater repression. It would be a horrible tragedy if those fears became a reality.

One can only fervently pray that church leaders will channel aspirations for earthly redemption into a longing for liberation from sin and death, and for the speedy return of Christ, and would focus on being “salt and light” in society now.

To answer the question posed in the title above, it would seem that a great many house churches are both doctrinally sound and politically harmless, though many others are definitely theologically unorthodox and, perhaps, potentially politically dangerous, especially if the government fails to open up greater space for civil society generally, and independent Protestants specifically.

Despite the flaws I have mentioned, both specialists and beginners will find this volume a rich resource and compelling account. Lian’s mastery of the sources, clear and convincing argument, and energetic style combine to create a book well worth careful reading.