In the context of contemporary Western Christian dialogue, China often appears as a threat to be countered or a problem to be solved.
Evangelicals outside of China have tended to view China through a political lens that brings familiar themes into focus while obscuring complex and enduring realities that must eventually be confronted. As Chen Jing has noted, “For quite some time, the mainstream, popular media’s reading and coverage of China tends to reflect a kind of ideological and political dualism. In other words, the story of China is often told and interpreted predominantly or even solely through the lenses of good vs evil, democracy vs dictatorship, and freedom vs authoritarianism.”1
But the roots of these narratives run much deeper than the latest headlines. This othering of China (and all too often, of Chinese in general) is anchored in the stories evangelicals tell about themselves and their place in the world.
China finds its place in evangelical discourse as a proxy for those things evangelicals fear most. In The Liturgy of Politics, Kaitlyn Schiess calls fear the primary language of political participation, an easy way to tap into the primal emotions of one’s tribe and galvanize their energies in opposition to a perceived threat. “Fear is a powerful motivator, whether it be fear of a future cataclysmic event, of the ‘bad guys,’ or of what society will become.”2
Through the use of what psychologist Jerome Bruner called “canonical script,” evangelicals repurpose the undesirable aspects of China to make sense of reality in a way that fits within evangelical political culture.3 Mistreatment of Chinese Christians serves as a warning to Western believers that they, too, will face similar persecution unless they can maintain the upper hand on the domestic political battleground. China’s economic growth and technological advances signal the end of American jobs and, ultimately, the American way of life. The rise of a socialist giant stokes fears of encroaching socialism at home, threatening our identity as a “Christian nation.” China has thus become an all-purpose evangelical adversary, the antagonist in a protracted battle that is being fought on multiple fronts—ideological, economic, political, cultural, and spiritual.
Efforts to acknowledge these very real fears while at the same time broadening the conversation by introducing a more nuanced view of China usually fall short, for they fail to take into account the deeper emotional and spiritual underpinnings of the prevailing evangelical narratives.
Philosopher James K. A. Smith shows how evangelicals have unconsciously accepted the Cartesian conception of the human person as res cogitans, a “thinking thing.” Based on the often-unspoken belief that “you are what you think,” contemporary Christians have reduced the process of Christian formation to the mere depositing of knowledge into believers’ receptive brains. The assumption is that such knowledge will then inform rational choices prompting behavior that is congruent with what one knows to be true. Even “anti-intellectual” Christians, Smith says, exhibit this intellectualist approach to Christian development, believing the correct knowledge taught in the right way will produce proper behavior.4
As the title of Smith’s book, You Are What You Love, suggests, this incomplete model of Christian formation ignores the deeper commitments of the heart, shaped through what he calls “secular liturgies,” or rituals that orient one’s affections toward an ultimate end.5 The question is not whether believers have sufficient knowledge, but rather, “What are the habits that have shaped the deepest desires of their hearts?”
Kaitlyn Schiess applies Smith’s res cogitans, or “brain on a stick” critique directly to evangelical political life, pointing out that Christians’ most significant formation tends to happen outside the church. It is not the Bible-based sermon they hear on Sunday but the flood of social media and cable news content in which they are immersed during the rest of the week that forms their ultimate loyalties. According to Schiess, this “spiritual formation in a political direction” occurs in two ways. Not only are Christians spiritually formed by the political forces around them; their intentional spiritual formation also has a political component. (Consider, for example, the profound political implications of Cold War-inspired evangelical teaching that links communism with end times destruction).6 In examining the often-unspoken political assumptions of evangelicals, Schiess echoes Smith: “I don’t think the question is whether we don’t know what our Bible says or that we don’t care. The real question is, ‘What is forming us?’”7
Reforming the heart requires what Schiess describes as the discipline of political confession: “The beauty of political confession—of telling the truth about ourselves and our histories in light of Scripture—is that it reveals artificial stories for what they are and creates space for truer ones.”8
In this regard, the same narratives that promote a skewed and ultimately misleading view of China can actually be helpful. Rather than skirting uncomfortable China conversations, leaning into the narratives by which evangelicals seek to make sense of China and its church can uncover the biases and cultural assumptions standing in the way of a more authentic understanding of what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom, thus opening the way for a new conversation about authentic Christian witness in today’s world.
- Chen Jing, “The Chinese Church’s Context May Be More Complex Than You Thought,” ChinaSource Blog, November 9, 2020, accessed March 16, 2022, https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/the-chinese-churchs-context-may-be-more-complex-than-you-thought/.
- Kaitlyn Schiess, The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of our Neighbor (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 33.
- Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 18 (Autumn 1991): 13.
- James. K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 2-5.
- Smith, 27-29.
- Schiess, 12-13.
- Schiess, 21.
- Schiess, 166.
Image credit: Diem Nhi Nguyen via UnSplash.
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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