|Which Asia? Which Christianity? A Review of
Christianities in Asia
Reviewed by Jeff Romack
Is it “Asian Christianity” or “Asian Christianities?” This is the question posed at the very outset of this work. In the opening and introductory chapter the volume’s editor, Peter C. Phan, explains that either term is correct depending on one’s perspective. Since there are basic beliefs and recognizable practices associated with the Christian faith that are essential and common to virtually all Christian communities in Asia it is possible and, at times, appropriate to speak of “Asian Christianity.” At the same time, it must also be recognized that a vast array of historical and cultural factors has given rise to a great diversity of expression of those basic beliefs and practices among Christianity’s adherents on the Asian continent. For this reason it is also proper to speak of “Asian Christianities.” It is this latter perspective that is held in focus in this book.
Many North America Christians are aware at some level of the cultural diversity found in Asia that gives rise to diverse expressions of the Christian faith but not all are quick to accept the validity of those diverse expressions. Christianities in Asia; however, was not written to present the case for the validity of contextualized Christianity. This is simply assumed and then presented as it is found in each nation. This, it seems to me, is indicative that the book is not really intended for a popular audience. After all, as I pound out this review on the computer my spell checker reminds me that “Christianities” is a misspelled word or may not be a word at all! And, the Amazon.com ad for this book shows the cover of the paperback edition with the title, Christianity in Asia. What were they thinking? The case for contextualized Christianity is one that still needs to be made for most North American Christians even as they practice their own form of it.
Christianities in Asia is the first book in the Blackwell Guides to Global Christianity, a new series, with two books yet forthcoming on Christianity in China and Africa. While the present book presents itself as a popular introduction to Asian Christianity, it is a book written by academics for use in an academic context. It falls into that genre of writing which seeks to provide a manageable introduction to a subject of vast proportions. We know it refers to a world that really exists but we’re not quite sure we’ll actually be able to recognize it when we arrive there.
As one who has lived and worked in Asia for most of the last thirty years, I found the book most helpful when reading about the church in those nations in which I have lived or spent a significant amount of time. For those places there was much that was familiar but also some helpful new understanding and clarity provided. For those contexts with which I am less familiar the reading was more difficult and, at times, obscure. This is revealing of my own limitations but it also raises a question as to how helpful such a work might be for the uninitiated popular reader. As an aid to those in that situation each chapter provides a list of additional books for further reading.
The book is presented in twelve chapters. The first, already noted, is a fairly brief introduction. Some of the chapters cover several nations within a single chapter when the historical development of the church in those nations has common roots (e.g. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar; Malaysia and Singapore; Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia; Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau). Other chapters address a single nation (e.g. Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines, Mainland China, Japan, South Korea). The last chapter covers an entire region; the Middle East. This, in itself, is a reminder that, “one of the bitter ironies of Asian Christianity is that though born in (South-West) Asia, it returned as a foreign religion . . . and is still being widely regarded as such by many Asians (2).”
One chapter deserves special mention, that being the one devoted to Christianity in Mainland China. I confess that I am not widely read in this area but this is certainly the clearest thing I have seen in terms of an explanation of the relationship, past and present, between the church and state and also in its consideration of the impact of Christianity on intellectuals in China and its prospects in the 21st century.
Mongolia, North Korea, Nepal, and Central Asia are not covered in the book. This is an understandable but unfortunate omission. It’s understandable because of the heavy emphasis on Christianity as institution and the corresponding lack of institutional development in those nations and that region. It’s unfortunate because mission on the frontiers is essential to the nature of the church and that mission is often of great interest to those who might be inclined to pick up this kind of book. It is only in the book’s conclusion that the advance and influence of Pentecostalism is briefly noted. Again, I wonder if this is due to the fact that as a grassroots movement it is largely outside the confines of the traditional structures that are so much in focus here.
The book takes a broadly ecumenical approach that first considers the Roman Catholic, and then the Protestant and Orthodox expressions of the church in Asia. This is a strength of the book but it may also shed light on what I consider the book’s main weakness; that it’s presentation of Asian Christianities is heavily slanted to the institutional expression of the church in various locations rather than on how Jesus is actually worshipped and followed or how his Kingdom is understood and engaged on the ground by Asian Christians. Perhaps this is the residual evangelical in me emerging. It is one thing to know that liturgy, church structure and social service is expressed in somewhat different ways in different places in Asia but if you want to know what that actually looks like among the people you still must go!