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Studying Christianity in China

A Book Review

Studying Christianity in China: Constructions of an Emerging Discourse by Naomi Thurston.  Leiden: Brill Academic Publishing, 284 pp. 2018.

The last decade has seen an increase in the number of young Chinese scholars choosing to make Christianity part of their academic studies. Naomi Thurston spent several years trying to understand this community. Based on her open-ended interviews with fifty Chinese scholars of Christian studies, this book presents Thurston’s doctoral analysis of this fascinating phenomenon. Those interested in ministering to mainland scholars will benefit from Thurston’s categorization of Chinese scholars of Christianity as well as the many personal interviews contained in this study. For those less directly engaged with Chinese scholars, this book provides four valuable insights that will affect the future of Christianity in China.

First, despite the proliferation of Christian study centers and think tanks at universities across China, Christian studies and Christianity in general are largely relegated to the margins of Chinese academia. Yes, conferences are held and books are published, but budgeting priorities (low) and employment opportunities (few) ensure that Christianity remains at the fringes of Chinese scholarship. Practically, while this marginality may attract a few “rebels,” most up and coming scholars are compelled by market forces to center their career in another discipline (philosophy and linguistic/cultural studies are most popular, with a few choosing history). At best, Christianity is employed by some as a novel research tool; for many, it remains an academic hobby. Current curricular trends and increasing state controls on education suggest Christianity in the near term will likely be pushed further away from the mainstream of Chinese academia.

Second, Thurston’s data reveals that the kind of person who engages in Christian studies in China has shifted significantly in recent years. A generational shift in Chinese academia in general is affecting Christian studies as well, with younger scholars constituting a larger proportion of the field.  Moreover, younger scholars with an interest in Christian studies are much more likely to be believers and to come from diverse backgrounds: women and national minorities are making their presence known, raising the possibility of a similar diversity in Christian studies research in coming years. Many of these young scholars have benefited from formal theological training overseas—in some cases with proper degrees. While their overseas studies at present have little affect on course offerings or syllabi in Chinese universities, these kinds of foreign experiences help Chinese scholars participate in global conversations, bringing significant advantages (and some disadvantages) to new research.

Third, the question of personal faith remains an important one within Chinese Christian studies. Few of the first generation of Christian studies scholars identify as believers, with many of them moving into the field as a result of their experiences with the so-called “cultural Christian” (wenhua jidutu) movement.  This exploratory impulse has shaped Christian studies in China such that a shared commitment to open dialogue across cultures and other barriers remains a hallmark of the discipline. As Thurston’s research affirms, most Chinese Christian studies scholars believe faith is neither a necessary nor even a beneficial attribute for someone wishing to join their conversation.  This inclusive attitude is present in the more narrow discussions of sino-theology (both in its understanding as Liu Xiaofeng’s Barthian cosmic theology and as the more general category of Chinese-language theology) as well as the broader discussions regarding Christianity’s insights into other disciplines. Significantly, the majority of the believing scholars within Christian studies share this attitude.

This last observation, in particular, points towards what for many ChinaSource readers will likely be the most important insight from this study. Thurston argues persuasively that these Christian studies centers and the scholars who participate in research related to Christianity within Chinese universities are not likely to produce actual Chinese theologians who can document let alone synthesize the theological beliefs of mainland Chinese churches. And while a minority of Thurston’s interviewees are invested in local congregations, even amongst this population the idea that theology should serve the church is not universally shared. Academic theology is certainly capable of blessing those outside of the church; and theology developed at some distance from specific church confessions can also develop insights that are of great value to the church universal. Many ChinaSource readers, however, are eagerly awaiting the day when the church in China begins to make its own unique contributions to the global understanding of the gospel. The sad news from Thurston’s excellent study is that it appears these Chinese Christian academics will probably not be the ones to undertake this important task.

Despite all this, evangelistic outreach to Chinese scholars overseas remains vital, as does the important task of adjusting western seminary programs to accommodate Chinese scholars. Indeed, as the Chinese state seeks to flex its academic muscles abroad, maintaining and strengthening the Christian presence within Chinese academia is more important than ever.

But China’s unique theological future—its theological place in the global church—will be charted by Chinese Christians and their churches. As Chinese churches continue to deepen in faith and commitment, perhaps more and more Chinese pastors will find time to reflect on and put to pen the theological insights they have gained through their years of service during these “interesting times.” May God speed the day!

Our thanks to Brill for providing a copy of Studying Christianity in China: Constructions of an Emerging Discourse for this review.

Image credit: zd-hing from Pixabay

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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