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Seeing the Same China, but for Different Reasons

The Importance of Exegeting Our Christian Culture

From the series Our China Stories

Jayson Georges in his book The 3-D Gospel contrasts the predominately Western guilt-innocence worldview with the shame-honor and guilt-power paradigms found in non-Western cultures. As Georges argues in his book, these competing worldviews are instrumental in how the Christian message is understood in a particular cultural context and, therefore, must be taken into account when communicating the gospel cross culturally.

The 3-D Gospel gives Western Christians a valuable set of lenses for viewing the shame-honor dynamic at work in traditional Chinese culture, along with the fear-power dynamic associated with folk practices and the religions of many of China’s ethnic minorities. But what if these same lenses were reversed, so to speak, and used to understand how Western Christians view China and the church in China?

The four dominant China church narratives we’ve been examining in this blog series are pervasive in Western discourse about China. Yet a closer look at the convictions and values behind these narratives suggests that Christians may tell the same China stories, but for very different reasons. Applying Georges’ cultural typology, it is possible to identify significant worldview differences among Western Christians, which find expression in their China narratives. (As Jackson Wu has pointed out, a similar analysis could be made of Christians’ political views, but that’s a whole other story.)

From the guilt-innocence point of view, the Chinese government is guilty because it violates legal norms, as seen in the persecution of Christians. Advocacy organizations cite, for example, “a broader pattern of increasing human rights abuses under Xi Jinping, accompanied by and manifested through a shrinking space for civil society, a heightened sensitivity to perceived challenges to Party rule, and the introduction of legislation that curtails civil and political rights in the name of national security.”

From this perspective, China’s Christians need our help primarily because their rights are being violated. True justice will come to China as Christians bring about cultural change, resulting in legal and political reform.

A shame-honor orientation views the persecution as an attack on the body of Christ as a whole. The pain of a Chinese believer is felt by Christians outside China who share with the victim a sense of shame. For Christians in America who believe that greater persecution is coming to their own country, the experience of Chinese believers may serve to reinforce their feelings of marginalization. They seek to restore honor to the body by defending the virtue of the persecuted, providing material support to believers, and encouraging the Chinese church’s efforts to send out missionaries and thus become a light to the nations.

From a fear-power perspective, the persecution is a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality that must be dealt with in the spiritual realm. Here the focus is on the unseen powers behind the Chinese state, which has become a willing ally in the enemy’s dark plot to thwart God’s purposes on earth. As one Christian website warned, “We are in a war with China. Not a conventional war, but a new kind of war. This needs prayer!” From this perspective, China’s cosmic destiny will finally be realized as the spiritual powers of evil are defeated and China experiences spiritual and cultural renewal, revealing God’s glory.

Why Culture Matters

If, as Georges contends, the key to understanding cultural perspectives is identifying whether one relies on formal institutions (guilt-innocence culture), human communities (shame-honor culture), or unseen spirits (fear-power culture) to satisfy the basic requirements of life, then we need to recognize that Western believers, too, will have different worldviews depending on where they look to satisfy these basic requirements. In discussions about China, it is not enough simply to make the case that China is a significant and influential player on the world scene, that the church in China comprises one of the largest Christian communities in the world, and, therefore, we ought to engage with Christians in China. Rather, this case needs to be made in a culturally appropriate manner.

A Christian who sees life from a guilt-innocence perspective and has a high view of formal institutions may resonate with a logical analysis of why China is important and how believers in the West should approach China. Someone with a fear-power worldview, on the other hand, may find such an analysis completely irrelevant or even deceptive because it does not address the unseen spiritual forces at work. Christians with a shame-honor worldview would want to know how people in their community feel about China, who has a personal connection to China, and how China has affected their lives.

It is possible to agree on many things about China, yet still talk past one another.

ChinaSource readers would generally agree that a healthy conversation between Christians inside and outside China is good for the global church and for the world as a whole, particularly in this season when relations between China and many Western nations are in a downward spiral. Understanding the cultural perspectives of our brothers and sisters in China is vital to beginning this conversation, but it is not enough. We also must exegete our own Christian culture.

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Image credit: 兰 莫 from Pixabay.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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