With a Ph.D. in history, the former Time Magazine Bureau Chief in Beijing and Moscow possesses the necessary background for a big-picture assessment of the expanding role of Christians within Chinese society. Add to that an eye for personal detail, aggressive investigative reporting, courage, wit, and a great deal of hard work, and you have the ingredients of a stirring account of one of the most momentous developments in modern times.
According to Aikman, we are talking not just about an incredible increase in the number of Chinese Christians in the past fifty years (from one or two million to more than 70 million), but what might become a fundamental shift in world power alignments.
In other words, the spread of a vibrant Christian faith throughout all echelons of society could produce a “critical mass” of believers that would impact both domestic and foreign policy. Specifically, Evangelical Christians could tilt their nation towards America in the global conflict between Islam and the West.
Despite such claims on the dust jacket and in the first and final chapters, the heart of the book lies in vivid portraits Aikman paints of intrepid missionaries and fearless Chinese believers over a span of more than a thousand years.
Aikman begins with the story of early missionary efforts in China, from the Nestorians in the 7th century, followed by Franciscans in the 13th century, to the Jesuits in the 16th century. Each time, foreigners fell victim to Chinese politics and were driven out or suppressed.
The history of the Protestant church in China starts with the heroic efforts of Robert Morrison, who arrived in Canton (now called Guangzhou) in 1807. His translation of the Bible laid the foundation for the substantial success of thousands of Protestant missionaries from the West in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
When Mao took control of China however, all foreigners once again had to leave. Many wondered whether the Chinese church would survive. Jesus in Beijing offers vivid proof, not only of survival, but of unprecedented growth.
Following a roughly chronological order, the author introduces us first to the “Patriarchs” – a handful of stalwart pastors who endured decades of harsh treatment in prison because they would not join the State-controlled Protestant Three Self Patriotic Movement “church.” Interviews with these resolute men provide the basis for brief sketches of their sufferings and their profound impact upon the current generation of believers who have been inspired by the courage of their elders.
Next come the “Uncles” - leaders in their forties and fifties who now guide tens of millions of believers in “house church” networks. They, too, have undergone brutal persecution for refusing to register with the government or join the TSPM. Imprisonment, beatings, and the agony inflicted by the electric stun-gun have failed to dampen their zeal or commitment to evangelism.
Aikman introduces also to “Aunts, Nephews, and Nieces,” who follow in the footsteps of the Patriarchs and Uncles to take the message of Christ to China’s millions. He traces the growth of house churches, describes miracles, and quotes joyful believers from all walks of life.
In a chapter on “Artists, Writers, and Academics,” he offers solid evidence for his optimism about the coming cultural impact of Christianity upon even the upper levels of Chinese society.
Theologians will notice his bias towards “Charismatic” forms of Christianity and his less-than-limpid analysis of their apparent misunderstanding of Reformed doctrine. Nor does he dispute the belief among Chinese believers that 20-30% of their countrymen will be Christian within a few decades, or try to analyze what “Christian” might mean under those circumstances.
But Aikman is a reporter, not a theorist, and he keeps his focus clear: To relate to those on the outside the activities and attitudes of a truly remarkable array of ardent followers of Jesus.
Several well-researched chapters take us into the complex world of both the Three Self Patriotic Movement and of the two Roman Catholic organizations (one loyal to Rome, the other at least nominally subservient to the Government). He includes a very balanced survey of the role of foreign Christians in China over the past couple of decades.
He has received some criticism for revealing more information about some Christian ministries operating in China than seems necessary. He responds by observing that the Chinese already know what Christians are doing, and don’t really have time to listen in on every conversation. But his detractors, though admitting that the police know more than we would like, reply that it’s better not to make the Christian work of foreigners so prominent that the government is compelled to crack down.
Indeed, that seems to have been the case, for since the publication of Jesus in Beijing and the almost concurrent appearance of Yuan Zhimin’s CD, “The Cross in China,” the authorities seem to have been forced to do something about the rapid spread of a movement they cannot control, for hundreds of house church leaders have been apprehended. Most have been held for only a few days, but some have suffered harsh treatment and a few have been given very long sentences.
I would add these further comments:
- David Aikman's view that China will be "Christian" in a few decades or less depends on a view of "Christian" which he received from his Chinese Christian friends. They do evangelism in such a way that millions of professions of faith result, but the reality or depth of those conversions is often questionable.
- The world view of such "Christians" usually lacks depth and breadth. Only a handful of them have the means or opportunity to apply anything like a Biblical standard to the questions of their society. That means that their political influence could be uneven, at best.
- Aikman himself holds out the possibility that China will lurch towards aggressive nationalism in the near future. Some experts note that a strong anti-Christian reaction, and thus ruthless and thoroughgoing (as distinct from moderate and spotty, as now) persecution, could push the church to the margins of society, as has happened several times in the past several hundred years.
- Aikman points out the danger of splits, cults, and heresies. These cannot but diminish the overall political impact. The horrendous turmoil resulting from the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century shows what such a cult could do. China's leaders are aware of that history, and are zealous to quash any such movement. They do not know how to distinguish true from false religion, however, so their blows could (and often do) fall on orthodox groups.
- Still, Aikman does try to qualify what he means by "Christian" influence, and makes a good case for such a powerful growth of the faith among all sectors of society that the entire nation will be affected.
- There is even a danger that some future Chinese Constantine will latch on to Christianity as the only "glue" to hold together an otherwise unraveling country and make it the "official" religion. Since China has always had an official orthodoxy controlled by, and supporting, the government, you can imagine the disastrous consequences this could entail.
In the end, however, Jesus in Beijing is mostly about the indomitable house church movement which, starting as a tiny seed in the dark soil of remote villages during the days of the Cultural Revolution, has blossomed into a garden of immense variety and beauty.