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Making Christ Present in China

Some Notes and Comments

Editor’s note: Bob Canfield, a friend of mine from our church here in St. Louis, taught anthropology at nearby Washington University for many years. Nearly every conversation with Bob includes a reference to anthropology and the insight it brings to almost any discussion. His wife would laughingly say that, for Bob, everything is about anthropology. So, when this book came across my desk late last year, an anthropological study of Christianity in China, I thought who better than Dr. Robert Canfield to tell us what might be of interest to our readers. A scholarly book like this, based on a doctoral dissertation, will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you might be surprised at what can be found there and its value for ministry.

This is not so much a review but, as he titled it, some notes and comments. It is longer than usual for a blog post; it includes numerous lengthy quotes that will give you a firsthand taste of what is in the book. So, grab a cup of something and settle in for a good read. 

Making Christ Present in China: Actor-Network Theory and the Anthropology of Christianity by Michel Chambon. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. Available at Palgrave Macmillan and Amazon.   ISBN-10 : 3030556042 ISBN-13 : 978-3030556044 304 pages

Background and General Orientation of the Author

Michel Chambon was educated as a Catholic seminarian in France, receiving full training to be a priest, but he decided to remain a layperson. He has a MA in theology, a PhD in anthropology, and has done field work on how Catholics in Taiwan deal with the problem of “ghosts.” His general focus of interest has been “faith” and “culture.”

Chambon has lived in China altogether for eight years. The period of his field work, when he was doing research for this dissertation, extended from January 2015 to May 2016. During that time, he was affiliated with the Sun Yat-Sen University. The “field” was the Christian movement as he found it in the Yanping district of China, in which Nanping was the notable city. During that time, he lived in a home for the elderly owned by one of the churches he studied, the Gospel Church.

His project was officially known to the government, which entailed his keeping in touch with the local officials by means of many conversations over tea.

I learned immensely about the Chinese political and administrative equilibrium [i.e., the structure of Chinese society]. After some warnings from the local police, I also learned how to engage with various state officials and communicate more actively about what I was doing in China. … Having a research permit and being affiliated with an outstanding Chinese university are never enough. Therefore, like many other foreigners elsewhere in China, I got repeatedly invited to drink tea with a few officials and enjoyed endless discussions about numerous topics. If they were interested in hearing about social issues in Hong Kong, the soft power of the Vatican, or the religious policy of the USA, “I was also able to question them on the Chinese religious policy, environmental problems, and other issues that preoccupied my mind at that time. (p.17)

Nanping, the Locus of His Research

As part of his project, Chambon visited Protestant churches in several provinces of China (Zhejian, Guangdong, Nanjing, Bejing, Shanghai) and Catholic churches in Fuan, Fuzhou, and Guangzhou. Nanping, the community of his specific research, was a town of roughly 300,000 inhabitants situated near the headwaters of the Min River. It is a key city of Fujian province in southern China. The province is subdivided into nine prefectures, Nanping being the capital of one of them.

His Project Agenda: Six Churches

Chambon says, “I am interested in considering how Chinese Christians and their various churches produce categories and standards that enable them to position themselves as Christ’s disciples” (anthropological jargon for how they think and present themselves as Christians within the wider context of China). He focused on six churches in Nanping, briefly summarized in this chart.

Gospel Church4,000; disparate congregation in age and genderSeveral meeting sites; Methodist backgroundSpecial Thanksgiving Service; distinctive taboos, re: eating blood
Christian Assembly1,000; mostly womenEgalitarian structureHead covering for women; distinctive taboos, re: eating blood
Adventist Church (Little Flock)100; mostly womenSpecial dietary rules; existed from the 1930sSaturday Services; distinctive taboos, re: eating blood
Catholic, official150 families
Catholic, unofficial400 people
True Jesus Church700; balanced gender ratioOwns large auditorium; existed from the 1930sNot Trinitarian; distinctive taboos, re: eating blood

Besides these churches Chambon says there are some other groups that the state calls “evil cults” and seeks to eradicate: e.g., Shouters, Disciples’ Society, The Church of Almighty God. Most of such societies have “heterodox theologies.” He did find underground Catholics but found it hard to find underground Protestant churches. Compared to elsewhere in China, he says, Nanping has few unregistered Protestant house churches (p. 22).

The pastor of the Gospel Church is a strong figure in the community and may have been associated with the differentiating of some of the churches. “During interviews, several informants affirmed that until the early 1990s ‘Nanping Protestants’ belonged in practice to one broad and loose network. Then, the rising number of church goers and the strong leadership implemented by Pastor Sun produced a differentiation process within this large community. Those supporting a more collegial authority increasingly identified with the Little Flock tradition and shaped their own assemblage along with this equalitarian vision. Those supporting the centralized authority of Pastor Sun associated with the Gospel Church and its Methodist legacy” (p. 172).

Problems of Classification and Technical Language

There are many groups that call themselves Christian in China, but some of them hold beliefs that do not match what most Christians believe. Some, for instance, believe the Holy Spirit is a female incarnation of Christ; some rewrite their own scriptures. He needs to define what he means by “Christian.” He is also unsure how to use the word “church” because these churches are differently constituted. So, he uses the term “Christianizing Assemblages” to refer to the church he is studying.

Chambon uses several terms that may leave the reader puzzled. He prefers to describe instituted relationships as “networks.” Some other terms he uses are these:

  • “Semi-transcendent being”—social or societal entity.
  • “Hold agency”—have influence.
  • “The questioning face”—social pose toward the outer society.
  • “Questioning Christian face”—the pose that Christian groups take toward the outside world.
  • “Enigmatic face”—the poses that seem peculiar to outsiders, mysterious, and therefore distinguishing.

Structure of the Book

Chapter 1: Studying Chinese Christianity

The first chapter of the book lays out the conceptual architecture within which he describes these churches. In this chapter Chambon demonstrates that he has acquainted himself with the theoretical works that were currently relevant to his topic as he and his committee see it. The reader can skip most of this chapter. Anthropological theory is constantly in motion so that whatever seemed current when he wrote is, or will soon be, out of date. What is enduring about this work (as for most field reports) is the actual descriptive information: what he saw and heard, and his close-to-the-ground interpretations of it.

Chapter 2: Building Churches on Chinese Soil

In chapter two Chambon reviews the buildings owned and/or used by the churches in the region. He considers the physical appearance of Christianity in the area (i.e., the buildings) a kind of social statement in Chinese society, a physical demonstration of the Christian presence. “Material objects [i.e., buildings] and virtual entities [i.e., churches] … will be at the core of our attention. … their [the churches’] biggest, most expensive, visible, and collective objects” are their buildings. The several churches he studied have at various times shared space with each other (as when construction limited use of their own space), but they would never share with a Buddhist or Taoist temple (p. 187).

Chambon also takes note of the sounds (music) of the churches as wells as the smells (firecrackers, incense).

Chapter 3: Responding Together in the Face of the Lord

In chapter three Chambon describes what he has seen in the actual services of the six churches he is studying. An example of his style: “the Church emerges as an acting semi-transcendent being that offers communal belonging and moral models, while exceeding spatial, temporal, and theological limits.” (Translation: The church is a social entity that provides moral guidance for its members.)

Chapter 4: Revealing the Pastoral Church through Elderly Care

In chapter four Chambon describes how the churches care for the elderly in the community, not merely those in their own churches, but also others who have needs, including non-Christians. His closest connections are with the Gospel Church. As he lives in a home for the elderly funded by this church, he can describe in more detail how the Ren’ai Nursing Home, owned and operated by that church, functions. Many similar homes started by other churches have not survived: this is one of the few that has been able to keep functioning over the years. He also describes the important role of the clergy in managing the home and in ministering to the elderly in that home.

Pastor Sun has a powerful role in this community as the pastor of this large church and as the key figure in the management of the church’s home for the elderly. He “plays a central function in decision-making, [the] search for support and funding, and negotiation with sponsoring Christians and state officials” (p. 178). This structural importance of the pastor seems to be partly induced by state policy: “All believers and religious organizations were encouraged by the modern legal system to manifest themselves as distinct groups with identified, registered, and accountable leaders” (p. 189).

The home of the aged “specifically aims to attract the attention of the local administration and to produce political merits.” The church “deploy[s] an active courtship with the state for the benefit of the home itself and the entire Church network as well” (p. 171). Pastor Sun presents the nursing home project as a Christian service to the wiser community: “Christians are those who respect traditional values of Chinese civilization and are able to concretely implement it in our modern society” (p. 177).

Chapter 5: The Overflow of Gifts

The usual ritual conventions of the church are not common in the wider Chinese society. Weddings do not take place in the temples. With respect to funerals, it not normal in Chinese society for the ritual specialists to directly speak to those who mourn; they mostly perform rituals to enhance the transition of the dead to another world. Christian ministers preside over the funeral rituals and also speak directly to the mourners and offer condolences, etc.  “Christian places of worship and services are heavily monocentric [focused on the pastor and the icons in front] and dialogic [egalitarian]” (p.23).

The focus of this chapter is on a particular material object in the church: the offering box, “the only common object found inside churches and temples”(p.200).  “I was never able to fully and systematically explore the reality of their finances. While many were willing to share “confidential” stories and answer some of my nosy questions, I quickly understood that a thorough investigation would not be possible” “201). So, the offering box, he says, was the focus of his examination. Even at that it was hard to discern whether he learned much about the finances of these churches and their related institutions.

What does turn out to be interesting is the thanksgiving service that was practiced in the Gospel Church. “On the selected Sunday, churchgoers typically bring a lot of natural products, such as fruits, bags of wheat and rice, oil, and meat. Then, they stacked them on the chancel before conducting a long and joyful Sunday service. Some groups would also perform dances either inside the sanctuary or on the public square in front of their church. When I interviewed pastors on this Christian practice rather specific to northern China, they affirmed that Thanksgiving is not related to America but came from South Korea after 1979” (p. 215)

It was different from the usual American Thanksgiving in that “no food or turkey was consumed, and that no family meal occurred. Instead, local agricultural products were brought into the sanctuary and offered afterward to those in need. Therefore, this service is not a mere copy of the American Thanksgiving” (p. 220).

The details of the rituals of gift presentation interested Chambon. Also, the social implications of gift-giving are much discussed in anthropology, so there is a long discussion of related works on gift-giving.

Chapter 6: The Bloody Business of Christian Conversion

There are several taboos among the Protestants with respect to blood. What do they mean? Chambon argues that “the blood taboo is not just designed to set apart Christian networks or to protect Nanping Christians from the broader society’s religious influence” (p. 240). And the way a particular church defines the taboo codifies its relationship to Christ and its distinctive difference from the wider society. Blood seems to have a particular meaning among these Chinese Christians.

According to the vast majority of the Gospel Church churchgoers …, the Bible bans all consumption of blood, cooked or raw. As soon as someone becomes a Christian, he cannot eat any more food made out of animal blood or meat from an animal that has not been properly bled. The avoidance of blood consumption is one of the most basic commitments endorsed by a new Protestant during his baptism. (p. 241, cf. Acts 15:19-20)

 These taboos are a concern of many Christians here, but also of some confusion and disagreement. “Indeed, a Christian prohibition of blood has been present in Nanping for long. The True Jesus Church and the Adventists [the older churches in the region] have always been strict about this interdiction and other dietary restrictions” (p. 243) The issue was seriously debated among Protestants in the 1980s. The taboo seems to have spread among other Christian groups in the area after that period.

It was first embraced by some Christians who wanted to carefully respect biblical prescriptions as their Adventist and True Jesus Church’s friends urged them. Then, when different interpretations and denominational traditions became stronger in the late 1990s, pastors of the Gospel Church tolerated this practice in order to pacify theological debates among renascent Protestant denominations. (p. 243)

The issue seems to be contested among Christians elsewhere in China.

Of special interest is the iconic image of wine and grape leaves in many churches. Chambon implies that this image is more pervasive within the iconography of the churches than the cross:

. . . the wine and its associated plant have been the focus of even longer attention. Like in many Chinese mainline Protestant churches, grape and vine leaves appear everywhere in the Gospel Church. On the main door of the building, on the inside door of the second-floor chapel, on the altar used in the chancel during Eucharistic services, on the stained glass of the worship hall, or on various flyers and signs, motives of grape and vine leaves silently multiply. Either carved in the wood or painted on a wall, this specific plant stands as one of the most recurrent markers used by Nanping Christians to decorate their places of worship. Far before the cross itself, it is the only permanent design affixed on religious pieces of furniture (ministers’ seat, altar) used inside the twenty places of worship of the Christianizing assemblage. Bourgeoning here and there, it is almost like a vine plant is climbing on each part of Christian churches, running on its walls, seats, and windows. (p. 246)

Connected with these images are the special concerns some churches have to ensure that actual wine is taken during the Eucharist. And wine, it turns out is not easily acquired in Nanping. Some groups produce their own wine; others use the grapes available to create their “wine.” As Chambon describes it, the churches use the consumption of the sacred wine, “the blood of Christ” as a way of presenting themselves to other churches and, especially, the non-Christian community around them.

Chapter 7: Conclusion

Chambon uses the banyan tree as a visual representation of the expansive connections among the churches in Namping. Each seems to stand alone but they actually connect into each other. “As new trunks grow out of branches, Christians set apart people among them to channel and sustain the action of the entire network, their church. The pastoral clergy has a unique function and position within their assemblage; it plays a distinct role in the overall dynamic of their enterprise. Among the six Nanping Christianizing assemblages, each network implements its own type of pastoral clergy.

Some denominations have elders only; some promote a triad of bishops, priests, and deacons; some combine head pastors, co-pastors, and deacons” (p. 279)” Like the banyan tree “each sub- trunk has the capacity to autonomously support the growth of a large branch.” The sub-trunks being the specific pattern of leadership each church recognizes (p. 279).  

Besides these supportive trunks, Nanping Christians constantly generate lines of distinction to respond to the particular aspects of their milieu. … The banyan tree like the Church is not properly self-centered but in interaction with its milieu. (p. 280)

My Comment on All of This

Unfortunately, what flies with a doctoral committee does not necessarily read well for the ordinary public. It takes years to learn how to write the way this dissertation is written; it will take years to unlearn it, so that Chambon can explain what he is saying to an ordinary, intelligent person. The value of a report like this, in any case, lies in the specific details it provides. The observer’s actual report—what he sees and hears—is not reproducible and is therefore precious. I hope this gives the reader a sense of what one might find that is useful in this report.

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for providing a review copy of Making Christ Present in China: Actor-Network Theory and the Anthropology of Christianity by Michel Chambon.

Robert Canfield

Robert Canfield

Robert Canfield holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan and is Professor Emeritus of Sociocultural Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. His B.A was in Psychology from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. was in Linguistics from the University of Michigan. Canfield was a teacher of …View Full Bio

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