Confucius knew that he was not perfect, and could not speak clearly or confidently about Heaven. Buddha’s denial of desire collides with the natural love of this life so characteristic of the Chinese. Guan Yin promises to deliver, but can’t always deliver on her promises. The First Emperor could prepare for his death, but not avoid it.
Laozi spoke of the Way, but only in paradoxical riddles. Confucius longed for a true gentleman to appear. The Gate of Heavenly Peace reminded commoner and aristocrat alike that behind its doors sat an absolute monarch in a Forbidden City. The Emperor himself prayed to an unknown God in a temple without idols, seeking forgiveness for himself and his people at the Altar of Heaven.
Only Jesus can bring fulfillment to desire. He alone could rebel against injustice without shedding anyone’s blood by his own. Unlike either the Emperor or his unruly subjects, Jesus could submit to authority, demonstrate care for the weak, and rule with humility. The tomb of the First Emperor permitted no escape, but the empty hole in the Garden points to a Risen Savior for all who will come.
Indeed, Marshall’s thesis is that “God’s fingerprints are all over Chinese culture. He has, you might even say, prepared China for the news of Jesus Christ.” Thus, Jesus does not “come as a stranger to the Chinese people” but, in the word’s of the book’s subtitle, “fulfills the Chinese culture.”
Like others before him, Marshall points to a few Chinese characters –blessing (fu) ,
happiness (“double blessing” – xi); forbid (ji); come (lai) to explicate some of the hidden longings of the Chinese and their fulfillment in Christ. He does not claim too much for this analysis, which is rejected by most China scholars, but he does draw out their intriguing hints of Someone to come.
Marshall takes us on journeys to Mount Tai, Confucius’ birthplace, the Silk Road, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. Along the way, he introduces us to Confucius, Laozi, Buddhism, and significance of gates as pictures of the real blessing that comes with faith in Christ. This work of apologetics includes persuasive arguments for the reliability of the Gospels and the resurrection of Christ, but does so in a non-argumentative fashion.
Once I realized what the author was trying to do, I began to enjoy this book immensely. At first, I had thought that he was attempting to prove that certain elements of Chinese culture are virtually the same as fundamental components of Christianity. To some extent he does make that claim, but he is really aiming to demonstrate to Chinese that Christ offers them the answers to questions posed by their heritage.
In other words, Marshall does not join the chorus of those who level all religions, blurring distinctions and merging them into one common search for God. On the contrary, he posits Christ as the only Way to heaven, the real traveler of the Silk Road to bring blessing to China, the only gate to the Father and lasting heavenly peace. He is, as the title says, the true Son of Heaven.
Thus, he does not assert that the ancient Chinese really knew and truly worshiped the one true and living God (which is explicitly denied by Romans 1:18-32, to mention only one of many Scripture passages). He only – but powerfully – shows how God “did not leave Himself without witness” among the nations (Acts 14:17).
The artful, even elegant style of this book greatly enhances its appeal and persuasive power. Personal anecdotes, historical facts, quotes from Chinese classics, legends, and proverbs, and increasingly pointed references to the Bible weave a lovely tapestry of many threads that paint a beautiful portrait of Christ.
Marshall, who has lived and traveled widely in China and in Taiwan, has clearly thought carefully about the beauties, the aspirations, and the mysterious hints of something Other among the Chinese over the past several millennia.
On the other hand, he is not blind to the dark side, the ugliness, and the sordid reality that casts a shadow over the bright ideals. Child prostitution, devaluation of women, tyrannical rule by cruel despots – all these alert him to the eventual futility lurking beneath the noble maxims of China’s revered teachers and beloved deities.
It seems to me that Marshall has followed in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, who told us that are desires are to weak, not too strong; and of Blaise Pascal, who urged Christians to show how lovely, how utterly delightful, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The True Son of Heaven presents us with effective contextualization of the Christian message without dilution of its essence. Usually very critical of such efforts, I found only one or two statements that seemed a bit unguarded. Overall, this book is a success.
Non-Chinese can benefit from Marshall’s information and insights as background to their own study of Chinese culture and clues to effective communication of the Good News to their Chinese friends. Chinese who read English fluently will find it attractive and perhaps compelling.
If a Chinese translation is not already in the works, it should be, but Marshall’s style, both poetic and colloquial, requires a translator of the very highest skill in both English and Chinese to render the beauty and subtleties of this fine work of art.