A Review of
Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China
Li Ma and Jin Li
A high-school friend of mine only ever wore three shirts. Sure, he owned more, but those three were his favorites, and, whenever he wasn’t clad in a blue-and-khaki school uniform, he sported one of three black-and-red T-shirts. One of these shirts would be recognizable to anyone who’s ever set foot inside a Christian bookstore: the ubiquitous black T-shirt which proclaims “This Shirt is Illegal in 53 Countries”.
This shirt is one I’ve spotted many times over, in shopping malls and Sunday schools and church camps, and it’s meant to raise awareness of Christian persecution around the world. Its slogan seems to be directed mostly at non-Christians, as many online reviewers say they’ve used the shirt as an “evangelism tool” or a “conversation starter.” But the shirt’s intent seems off somehow, falling flat as a lukewarm soda, because the problem isn’t so much the secular world—it’s us, ignorant fellow Christians.
I’ll be the first to admit that I know a pittance about the true state of Christianity in other parts of the world. Certainly, I’ve watched news briefings on church bombings and heard about mission work and Bible-smuggling efforts, but after a while, American Christians talking about foreign persecution begins to feel like a game of telephone: we whisper amongst ourselves until the truth is hazy, swirled through with fiction and fantasy. Rumors blur until the Christian life in other parts of the world start to seem horrific, as if every foreign Christian lives a North-Korean-like existence, hiding and worrying, bowing and scraping. My ignorance—and I know I share it with fellow Christians—is counterproductive, for though we may talk about persecuted Christianity, though we clad ourselves in shirts announcing the cross as criminal, all we do is bury the truth about foreign Christianity further under hair-raising rumors.
Li Ma and Jin Li’s Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China cuts through the layers of hearsay about Christianity in China. The authors offer readers a shot of well-researched information that presents the perfect antidote to confusion about Chinese Christianity. Li Ma and Jin Li spent years gathering sociological data and interviewing Chinese Christians, creating an extensive web of information and voices which, tied together in this book, answers the simple, crucial question: what is it like to be a Christian in China? Nearly every paragraph quotes from an interview with a Chinese Christian, and these stories—which alternately warm and wrench the reader’s heart—bring a personal, individual quality to this academic book.
It is all too easy to misinterpret or misunderstand the behavior of people from different cultures, and, though Christianity is essentially the same the world over, there are aspects of foreign Christianity that are, well, just that: foreign. In China, Christianity has developed differently due to different values, constraints, and social pressures. Li Ma and Jin Li devote chapters of their book to breaking down aspects of Chinese Christianity which are alien to Christians steeped for years in American evangelicalism. Nationalism, Communism, Calvinism, censorship, views on marriage—these, among others, are factors chiseling Chinese Christianity into something distinct and worthy of study. For example, due to the way Christianity developed in China, believers there are less concerned with denominations than are their American counterparts. The authors quote a Chinese preacher who “commends this lack of denominationalism as an advantage of Chinese Churches: ‘We don’t speak about denominations,’ [he says] ‘but rather three musts: Bible, Holy Spirit, and Christian living. These are the three legs of a proper Christian, no matter what background one comes from . . . Having no denominations is a big blessing to our Chinese church’” (121).
I also commend the authors of Surviving the State for their attention to the changes in Christianity and in China’s response to it over the decades. Christianity in China today is a creature entirely different than Christianity in the 1950s, and it’s unfair (though common) to lump all decades together, disregarding the efforts and sacrifices made by Chinese Christians to bring about change and acceptance. In their conclusion, Li Ma and Jin Li offer a summary of the changing goals of Chinese Christianity which may prove helpful for their readers. During the Communist revolutions of the 50s, they write, Christianity meant “risking imprisonment by simply professing one’s faith. During the Cultural Revolution, being a Christian also brought systemic discrimination.” In the early 2000s, it meant living in an urban frenzy of the pursuit of wealth and consumerism.” Today, “following Christ entails the growth of the Christian mind,” seeking greater theological knowledge (175). It’s rather spectacular to have the trajectory of Chinese Christianity lain out like an epic poem, and it’s heartening, too, to see the effort and faith of so many individuals dedicated to a larger whole.
When I finished Surviving the State, I had to sit quietly for a bit, for it forced me to consider the enormity of the blessing which has surrounded me all my life. I had a similar feeling reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, in which he writes, “The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians.” I, for one, have most definitely taken this privilege for granted, and, surrounded by the hue and cry that American Christians will soon be among the persecuted referenced on the shirt “Illegal in 53 Countries,” I am blinded to the fact that I’ve lived a protected and privileged life. Here, perhaps, is yet another reason we must learn about (and from) Christians in other cultures, for in learning about them, we may come to see our own situations new perspectives.
Caroline White is an undergraduate at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She is editor-in-chief of the university’s literary magazine and the managing editor at jbudefendant.com.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com