Samuel Pearson Reviews Jesus In Beijing


(ANS) " The dramatic social and economic transformation of China since 1978 has been so impressive that it can only be described in terms of revolution or even resurrection. Today China has the will and potential to become the world's next superpower, and it behooves Americans to learn as much as possible of that land, culture, and people. For those willing to undertake this responsibility, study of China's religions will quickly be found to be a critical element in their learning, " Samuel Pearson starts his review of David Aikman's book. The author is a Visiting Professor of Church History at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville in the US. Below, we reprint his article which first appeared as "Jesus in Beijing: A Review Essay," in: Encounter, LXV (Autumn 2004), pp393-402.

Therefore, a book with the provocative title of Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power will appeal to many. The title, however, is a bit misleading. This book is primarily an anecdotal report on a few unregistered Protestant sects centered in Henan Province. It does present some information on the registered Protestant churches organized under the Three Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council, and there is a chapter on Chinese Catholicism. However, information on these groups is less adequate than that long available in Protestantism in Contemporary China by Alan Hunter and Kim-Kwong Chan (1993).

Jesus in Beijing is the work of an American journalist, David Aikman. Its strengths are the strengths of a skilled journalist. Aikman has traveled into the countryside to visit unregistered churches, many of which are loosely organized into groups, and to talk with members of these groups and their leaders. He offers a wealth of detail on their members, their leaders, their theologies, their educational programs, their goals and aspirations, and their attitudes toward the registered Protestant churches and the government. Precisely because these are unregistered and fiercely independent congregations and groups, little is known of them even in China, and Aikman's descriptive material is most welcome.

But this volume has serious flaws which limit its value for a full understanding of Chinese Protestantism. Of the two most obvious weaknesses, the first is Aikman's lack of a knowledge of the history of the church and of Christian thought either in Europe, America, or China; a shortcoming which makes it difficult sometimes for him to understand what he is seeing and hearing and which leads him to accept outrageous claims regarding what is or is not Christian or Protestant orthodoxy. The second, surprising in a journalist, is his willingness to accept uncritically what he hears from those individuals whom he most closely studied regarding other groups and individuals in China. Many of his negative comments regarding Christians in China are ambiguous or undocumented and undocumentable, and some can easily be shown simply to be false as is the case with his malicious description of the current president of the China Christian Council, Cao Shengjie. Evidence to contradict Aikman's characterization is readily available to anyone interested in investigating. The result is a volume that is descriptively valuable insofar as it presents information on rarely studied groups, analytically weak, and frequently unreliable.

Aikman provides a brief sketch of the seventh century Nestorian mission to China and subsequent missions by the Franciscans to the Mongol court and the Jesuits to the Ming and Qing courts as well as the introduction of Protestantism in the early nineteenth century. In a chapter entitled "Patriarchs," he introduces some of the famous twentieth century leaders of Chinese Protestantism who refused, for a variety of reasons, to join the Three Self Patriotic Movement: Wang Mingdao, Yuan Xiangchen, Lin Xiangao, Xie Moshan, and Li Tianen. These men all suffered in and out of prisons, and their heroic perseverence under pressure is incredibly admirable. One might only wish that Aikman had not left the false impression that, especially during the Cultural Revolution, only non-Three Self Protestants suffered or that they consistently suffered more than others for their faith. Chinese Christians, Protestant and Catholic, registered and unregistered, all suffered, as did other Chinese whether they identified themselves with religious groups or not. The recognition of this fact is the essential first step for the healing of deep divisions and misunderstandings that separate Christians in China today.

When Aikman turns in chapter four to the Henan folk, his book becomes fascinating. He describes four groups of independent, unregistered Christians centered in Henan Province: Fangcheng Fellowship, Tanghe Fellowship (also known as the China Gospel Fellowship), the Born-Again Movement (also known as the Word of Life Movement), and Eastern Lightning. These are vibrant, missionary movements in an area long described as experiencing "Christianity fever." Aikman provides biographical sketches of some of the leaders of these movements and, except for the Eastern Lightning group which he and interviewed members of the other groups he has studied describe as a violence-prone cult, considers them orthodox Protestant Christians. Unfortunately, he accepts uncritically the notion that the theological orientation of these groups, dispensational fundamentalism upon which charismatic pentecostalism was superimposed after the visit of an American evangelist in 1988, is historic Protestant Christian orthodoxy and therefore the norm against which all other theologies must be measured. Therefore he misses the uniqueness of what he witnessed and is able to accept and repeat the belief of the Henan people he interviewed that the registered Protestant churches which reflect more moderate theological views similar to those of Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist bodies in Europe and North America are dangerously heterodox.

Actually, the theological situation within Chinese Protestantism is almost the opposite of what Aikman presents. The theology of the Three Self Patriotic Movement/China Christian Council churches, in spite of their ties to the government, is generally orthodox. Biblical criticism is cautiously taught in their seminaries; and they have rejected the notion, unfortunately quite common in China, that Christians have no social responsibilities. Yet they retain the Apostles' Creed in their worship services, and their sermons are biblical, orthodox, moralistic, and long. In several years in China, I have observed nothing in these churches that would rise to the level of heterodoxy constantly charged against them by a few of the unregistered church leaders including, apparently, the ones studied by Aikman. On the other hand, while he describes the theology of the unregistered churches as orthodox, Aikman's actual description of them suggests that their theologies are far more varied than he seems willing to admit. Certainly large numbers of these churches, probably the vast majority, are theologically orthodox and virtually indistinguishable theologically from the CCC churches; but some clearly are not. Interestingly and to their credit, some of the unregistered churches have found ways to begin to shape a culturally Chinese Christianity. Whether and to what extent their syncretism of Christianity and Chinese folk religion remains authentically Christian presents us with the sort of question that inevitably arises when a religion is transported from one to another culture.

Among the unregistered churches, Aikman would have us believe that there are clearly distinguishable groups, mostly orthodox and a few dangerously heretical like the Eastern Lightning with its female messiah and its alleged use of kidnaping and brainwashing techniques in proselytism. Yet he quotes one unregistered church leader as declaring that eighty percent of the unregistered Protestant churches in Inner Mongolia have gone into the Eastern Lightning camp. What this figure suggests is that the unregistered churches have few leaders with the education required to nurture their converts so that charismatic but heterodox leaders can easily draw believers into their fold. This observation is reinforced by Aikman's description of the unregistered seminaries as well as his account of new converts, some teenaged, being sent out to evangelize after two weeks of indoctrination. To be sure, the sad state of education among the unregistered is in part a result of the fact that, as unregistered groups, they are considered illegal gatherings and thus circumscribed in their efforts to gain or to transmit education; but it remains a serious problem. In the situation of rapid membership growth, the official Protestant churches have not been able to educate sufficient leaders for their churches, and the problem in unregistered churches must be far greater. I believe that what actually exists among Chinese Protestant groups is not a clear dichotomy between orthodox and heterodox groups but a continuum from fairly traditional Protestant Christianity to unique forms of worship and religious thought with different groups falling at different points on the continuum and with the possibility, especially among unregistered groups, for rather sudden and dramatic shifts in theological orientation as evidenced in Aikman's account of the theological transformation of two of the Henan groups as the result of a single visit by a Pentecostal pastor–missionary.

Sadly, though Aikman devotes an entire chapter to seminaries, he reports only on unregistered and technically illegal schools that struggle to survive in secret locations and with few educated teachers and little teaching material. He neglects the registered seminaries whose status permits much easier examination of their curricula, teaching materials, faculty competencies, and student bodies. These schools, limited to undergraduate instruction except at Nanjing, are doing a reasonably good job of preparation for pastoral ministry with very limited resources. Their students are bright and committed, and their curricula, primarily biblical, historical, and theological studies, are providing the basic instruction necessary for effective pastoral ministry. Nanjing Seminary with a small graduate program has even introduced course work in pastoral counseling, a field for which there should be great demand in China today.

Aikman is most misleading in his repetition without critical analysis of charges against the TSPM/CCC churches and their leader, Bishop K. H. Ting (Ding Guangxun), that he hears from leaders and members of unregistered churches. The relationship between registered and unregistered churches is complex and varied within both the Protestant and the Catholic communities. Yet for those who oppose the official church and refuse to register, whether on grounds of theology or polity or because of the CCC's relationship with the government, Ting has been a lightning rod for their hostility. One hears all of the charges Aikman reports and many more from Christians and non-Christians in China. Yet, as even Aikman grudgingly admits, much of this appears to be extreme and uncharitable and to put the absolutely worst possible interpretation on ambiguous facts. There is much that must be praised in Ting's work, and Aikman does credit Ting with seeking to protect some of the unregistered churches from the government's ire, for aiding in the defense of Sunday schools in Wenzhou, and for speaking out in defense of the students at Tian'anmen in 1989. I believe that Aikman's lack of knowledge of Protestant thought and his naive assumption that dispensational fundamentalism is Protestant orthodoxy may be the culprit here. He apparently accepts the claim of some of his informants that Ting is theologically suspect, and that seems to make him suspect in other spheres as well. Aikman observes that Ting and Y. T. Wu, Ting's predecessor as head of registered Protestantism in China, both attended Union Theological Seminary in New York where they imbibed a theology that he elsewhere describes as "almost a version of Marxism," certainly a description that no serious scholar of religious thought would accept. Aikman is clearly hostile to Protestant liberalism, but what he knows of it is illustrated by his description of Reinhold Niebuhr as a "moderate German theologian who had left Nazi Germany in 1933." There is simply too much of this kind of misinformation in this book.

Like every church that has gone through a period of severe persecution, the Chinese church that emerged in the 1980s suffers from bitter memories and is prone to look for those within the community believed to be responsible for or at least in sympathy with that suffering. As in the case of the Donatist conflict that followed the Roman persecutions, this too shall pass; but it will take time. For Aikman to report that these deep divisions continue to exist is absolutely accurate; for him to accept every charge he hears as true without investigation is unfortunate and, insofar as it is believed by others, may very well slow the process of reconciliation and do a grave disservice to all Chinese Christians. In the chapter entitled "Foreigners" Aikman does reveal that some of these problems are exacerbated by foreign interference, some well intentioned and some self-serving, all of it aggravating the relationship between the government and the unregistered groups.

To understand these issues, one must understand the relationship of religion to the state in China. The government of China claims to provide its citizens with freedom of religion, but what is meant by that term is not what is meant by it in America or in most of Europe. The Chinese constitution protects five named religions (Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism) and those groups within these five religious traditions that register with the government. Thus the registered churches of the China Christian Council are in some respects an establishment of religion. Through the Three Self Patriotic Movement and the State Administration of Religious Affairs they are under the cognizance of the government of China, officially a Communist government. This is a major issue for some though certainly not for all of the unregistered groups. Actually all Chinese Protestants, registered and unregistered alike, accept the three self principle that the church should be self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. It is easy to overemphasize the differences between unregistered and registered churches with respect to their attitudes toward government as well as with respect to their theology. Aikman consistently does so.

Americans frequently assume that this policy of registration and supervision was imposed by the present government after 1949 and that it is a distinctly Communist effort to control the churches. As an American of Jeffersonian proclivities with a strong commitment to separation of church and state, I certainly do not find the arrangement attractive. Nor do I believe that the Three Self organization and the State Administration for Religious Affairs are necessary today. The church in China would be better off without this apparatus, and it is difficult to see how it is useful to the state which has more than sufficient personnel without it to monitor and control any violent or disruptive activities by religious or other groups. But as a historian I also know that control of religious organizations was introduced by the Tang Dynasty in dealing with the first two foreign religions to enter China, Buddhism and Christianity, and that it has been the policy of every subsequent government of China. Even the Guomindang government of Chiang Kai Shek who claimed to be a Christian required Christians to register along with other religious groups. Therefore the problem for those in China, and there are many in registered as well as unregistered groups, who oppose the registration policy is not to convince the government to drop a policy it recently devised but rather to turn away from one that is nearly as old as China. This will be difficult, for there is a long history of political turmoil provoked by religious groups in China. For example, the great Taiping rebellion of the nineteenth century that came close to toppling the empire was led by Hong Xiuquan, a visionary who had come under Protestant missionary influence and claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus.

Christianity is a rapidly growing movement in China today, but whether it is likely to transform China and change the global balance of power as Aikman believes remains to be seen. Precisely because unregistered groups are unregistered, it is almost impossible to gain trustworthy statistics concerning their membership. Aikman's judgment that the registered churches, Protestant and Catholic, now number near twenty-five million adherents is reasonable. It appears to me that his estimates of membership in the unregistered churches are probably inflated both because he uncritically accepted reports from unregistered leaders and because there is a serious problem among these groups both of deconversion when the new religion fails to produce either the wealth, the health, or the larger apartment promised by the evangelist and of transfer from one group to another which frequently leads to double or triple counting. Yet these extremely generous membership estimates and extrapolations from them lead Aikman to a more positive judgment of the likely future of Christianity in China than I would hold. Christianity will certainly become an increasingly viable religious option for urban and probably for increasing numbers of rural Chinese as well, but whether it will exert the impact on the culture and society of mid-twenty-first century China that Aikman anticipates appears to me unlikely.

Certainly for Christianity to have the kind of influence in China that Aikman anticipates and that Chinese Christians would desire will require that it become capable of serious dialogue with the intellectual, political, and artistic leadership of China. This in turn will require a massive strengthening of seminary education in China. Of the Protestant seminaries, only Nanjing has even begun to move beyond the most rudimentary preparation of pastoral leaders to equipping students for a serious role in the intellectual life of the nation. Aikman presents no evidence of significant educational programs among the unregistered groups. There is currently no sign that such strengthening is on the immediate horizon.

Finally, thoughtful people need to read this book, if for no other reason, to become aware of the Back to Jerusalem movement that Aikman reports as an important element in the ideology of the unregistered groups he studied in Henan Province. This movement began in Shandong in the 1920s and has spread rapidly among the unregistered Protestant churches of Henan. According to Aikman, there is common agreement among those he studied that Chinese Christians should launch a missionary crusade westward through the Muslim areas of Gansu Province and Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China, to the Muslim states of Central Asia, and thence to Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and on to Jerusalem. Then the Gospel will have been preached around the world and end times may come. Aikman claims that the Henan groups have already sent missionaries to Burma and Pakistan and hope to field 100,000 missionaries for the Muslim states by 2007 in celebration of the Morrison bicentennial.

I do not know how seriously to take these claims. I have asked numerous Christians in the Nanjing area, from both registered and unregistered churches, and only one claims even to have heard of the Back to Jerusalem movement. Yet if it is more than a pious hope, I cannot imagine anything better calculated to deepen Muslim hostility toward Christianity, to complicate Chinese diplomacy on its western border, to bring the threat of terrorism to China, and certainly to complicate the lives of all Chinese Christians. This is a mission we do not need right now, and those who think otherwise including the individual who explained to Aikman that Muslims do not convert because they do not like Americans but that when the Chinese missionaries come they will be received with open arms are living in an extraordinarily dangerous dream world.

Perceptive readers who can move beyond the author's simplistic good guys–bad guys assumptions that mar his efforts to understand what he has seen will find here an introduction to the complex world of contemporary Chinese Christianity within a society in great tension, not only tension created by memories of the past but tension exacerbated by incredibly rapid social and economic change and divisions between urban and rural China, educated and uneducated China, wealthy and poverty-stricken China, and a China seeking to define its role in the twenty-first century. In many respects, therefore, understanding Chinese Christianity may provide the reader with considerable insight useful for understanding contemporary Chinese society as a whole.