First, the strengths: Burklin was born in China as the son of missionaries; in China he experienced both conversion to Christ and a commitment to ministry among Chinese. He has traveled widely in China, enjoys good relationships with many leaders of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), and heads a movement with wide involvement in the land of his birth.
He writes with verve and passion, mixing personal observations, interviews, and the results of his own reading. You never doubt where he stands, for he states his views clearly and forcefully. Evangelicals will rejoice at his firm belief in the Bible as the Word of God and only touchstone of true theology, and applaud his great concern lest liberal theology wreak in China the havoc it did in his native Germany.
All readers will also delight in the good news that God continues to work in China, with thousands of churches being built and opened in recent years, millions coming to faith in Christ, and eager new students seeking to learn more of the Scriptures in order to serve the growing church.
Those who think that all TSPM pastors are lackeys of the state, or all members of TSPM churches are nominal Christians, will be glad to hear of Burklin’s free access to TSPM evangelical seminaries and Bible schools in China and his first-hand observation of church buildings jam-packed with dedicated believers and earnest seekers.
Burning with zeal to tell “the rest of the story,” Burklin seeks to restore balance to our perception of the Christian movement in China. Thus, he dwells at length on the open doors within the TSPM, and he bends over backwards to explain the views of Bishop T.K. Ting (Ding). Wishing to present an accurate picture, he challenges, even mocks, the inflated claims of some Evangelicals who assert that tens of thousands are turning to Christ in China each day. He rightly excoriates those who misrepresent the actual facts in order to raise money for their own ministries.
While admiring the zeal of Chinese believers, he wonders whether the much-touted “Back to Jerusalem Movement” will really field the 100,000 cross-cultural missionaries that many Westerners, picking up on a statement by a few Chinese leaders, naively believe will soon flow west from China. He is wary of the idealistic, even romantic, picture of the house churches painted by Evangelicals is the West, and tries to fill out the portrait with the darker hues of the heresies and divisions which plague those congregations.
Most of all, he worries about the lack of proper theological education among Christians in China. Aware of the dangers of shallow teaching, and the general failure of Chinese Christians (and the missionaries who taught them) to relate the Gospel to Chinese culture, he pleads for more solid theological instruction for Chinese church leaders. He believes that the greatest threat to the church comes not from government persecution, but from liberal theology, he states repeatedly.
The book contains several Chinese communist government documents as appendices, including the Constitution. They are helpful, stating the laws which govern religious activity in China today, and they explain why Burklin can blandly state that “it is not persecution but prosecution that Christians may experience.” Thus, “As long as the rules, regulations, and laws of the land are respected, no one needs to fear death because of his or her faith.”
The author wants to contrast the horrific persecution of Christians during the Cultural Revolution with the relative freedom enjoyed today by the state-sponsored TSPM. He deeply resents the common portrayal of universal oppression and suffering of believers merely on account of their faith, and insists that true freedom of religion exists in China, supporting that assertion with manifold stories from his own experience with the TSPM.
On the other hand, despite his best efforts, the author fails in his intention to give us “the Rest of the Story: The Untold story of the Church in China Now Exposed,” as the cover loudly claims.
True, he provides us with some good historical background, both of China and of the spread of Christianity among the Chinese. He quickly relates the story of Christian witness in China, and graphically details the sufferings of Christians during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). In all this, he is fair and straightforward.
Even his treatment of the controversies surrounding Bishop Ting avoids a totally one-sided approach. He quotes, at length, both those who support, and those who oppose, Ting’s program of “theological reconstruction.” In a moving passage, he tells how the venerable Wang Ming-dao expressed his sorrow over Billy Graham’s cooperation with the TSPM.
Nevertheless, the balance to which Burklin aspires fails to appear.
To begin with, the inflated claims of the title are punctured by the one-sided case made for religious freedom. Burklin almost totally ignores the constant, and often costly, efforts of members of unregistered churches to maintain and spread the faith. He tells a small part of the story, perhaps, technically, the “rest” of it, but by no means does he “expose” the “untold story of the church in China.” House church believers constitute the vast majority of Christians in China, and they receive little mention in this supposedly “balanced” book, and what Burklin says is usually critical.
For example, he rightly emphasizes the need for theological education, but merely notes, with an admission of ignorance, the attempts of house church leaders to train their people. Clearly, he has not taken the time or trouble to find out what is going on.
His treatment would have carried more credibility if he had engaged in dialogue with David’ Aikman’s widely-read Jesus In Beijing.. Indeed, Burklin says he deliberately refused to read Aikman’s book, “so as not to be influenced by his opinions.”
Equally baffling, his bibliography omits reference to Tony Lambert’s authoritative works of meticulous research on China’s Christians, or God and Ceasar in China, edited by Hamrin and Kindropp.
Although he does quote critics of the TSPM, Burklin also seems to take at face value the rejoinders of Bishop Ting and his supporters. Alert China researchers know which “camp” such spokesmen represent, and evaluate their comments accordingly. The same goes for the many endorsements for the book, which come mostly from those who have a stake in their relationship with the TSPM and have studiously avoided much association with the house churches.
His account of the “theological reconstruction” campaign which Ting has been waging against Evangelicals in the TSPM moves mostly in the refined air of theoretical arm-chair theologians.
As for the lack of “persecution” in China, it will not do merely to say that if you keep the laws you will not suffer for your faith. In the first place, these laws force believers to choose whether to follow Caesar or Christ in the limited arena of faith. China’s regulations criminalize religious activities which are considered legitimate by international standards.
Again: Burklin does seems to ignore reports of the hundreds of church leaders who have been rounded up in the past eighteen months as part of a crackdown upon house church Christians.
To conclude: This book is hard to evaluate. It possesses much value as a description of legal Christian activity in China, and as a general overview of some aspects of Chinese Christian history. Burklin’s critiques of Evangelical hype and of the vulnerability of house churches to false teaching are well taken.
On the other hand, it lacks objectivity, omits much that should have been included, and ends up leaving an impression that is not fully true.
Like the biblical Barnabas, Werner Burklin is widely regarded as a good man who has done much good work. If only he had written a better book!