In the November 2008 edition of Church China, an Christian journal that is influential, especially among urban house churches, there was an article titled "The Yu Dan Phenomenon and the Ministry of Preaching." In it the author highlights the the popularity of Confucianism as a warning against the 'popularization' of the gospel.
Ms. Yu Dan is a Beijing-based professor who has played an important role in the resurgence of Confucianism in China. She initially became famous for her lectures on Confucianism that were broadcast on state television in 2006. She later wrote a book called "Confucius From the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today's World," in which she tries to demonstrate that Confucianism, even though it is an ancient teaching, can be a source of peace and happiness in today's hectic world.
This article is an interesting Christian response to Yu Dan's popularization of Confucianism, arguing that what she 'preaches' is really a watered down version of Confucianismwatered down to make it more palatable. The author then wonders if the Church is in danger of doing the same thingwatering down the Gospel in order to make it popular.
The Yu Dan Phenomenon and the Ministry of Preaching
Following her appearance on China Central Televisions Lecture Room series, Beijing Normal University professor Yu Dan rapidly became a hit both within China and abroad. Her lectures on Confucius The Analects have met with fervent popular acclaim, and her books have sold millions of copies. From a market perspective, where size of readership and quantity of books published are the last word, she has clearly won. But can quantity really tell us everything? Can sheer numbers tell us whether there is any real academic value to her work, or whether it contains genuine pursuit of truth? Or is it just playing with the Classics to please – or to tease – the public? Is truth to be found in the hands of the majority? Some have described Yu Dan as more schemer than scholar, claiming that her work lacks grounding in rigorous study of the Classics and accurate interpretation.
Yu Dan is a bulk-manufactured product of the contemporary culture machine. Just as this machine created Super Girl, Guo Degang, Zhang Yimou, Yi Zhongtian and Wang Shuo, so it has also created Yu Dan: a cultural symbol for popular consumption. A group of ten professors from leading institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University described her as the Super Girl of Academia, labeling her work a chicken soup for the soul version of The Analects.
The Yu Dan Phenomenon reveals that people today have a deep longing for accessible wisdom on society and humanity. There is clearly a demand for using colloquial language to explain the Classics, using the Classics to explain wisdom, using wisdom to explain life, and using life to explain human nature (Yu Dan). But does Yu Dans interpretation of the Classics actually further the pursuit of truth? Is the publics hero-worship of Yu Dan and enthusiasm for the culture machine an influence for good or bad? These questions are key, for if what the public endorses and esteems is not in fact the Classics, but rather a fake Classic, then the impact will be deeply harmful. The more it spreads, the more harmful it will be, and the further from the Classics we will drift.
In our churches today we also need to preach our Classic – the Bible – in an accessible way; however that does not mean we should debase it and try to flog its teaching like goods in an end of season sale! Is the Bible cheap truth? Is it discounted wisdom? Can we preach the word of God using the Yu Dan method: dispense with preparatory study and meditate over a cup of tea? If we expound the Classics like Yu Dan, The Analects are no longer penned by Confucius but by Yu Dan. Likewise, the Bible is no longer revealed by God, but dreamed up by the exegete.
When interviewed about the Yu Dan phenomenon, eminent scholar of philosophy Li Zehou likened Yu Dans job to that of an evangelist. Just like an evangelist, her role is to stabilize society, console human relationships, and make people content with their ideals amidst poverty. According to traditional wisdom, a teacher is one who preaches doctrine, imparts knowledge, and resolves doubts. By this definition, Yu Dan is certainly a preacher. But when asked whether he had ever thought of himself as an evangelist, Li was quick to declare that he had never thought of himself in this way, and had no interest in being an evangelist. He also said that if his academic publications were suddenly to sell 2.5 million copies, he would consider it an utter failure. These comments provide much food for thought.
The exegete must be motivated by pursuit of truth and not by pursuit of profit. But nowadays both teacher and listener are often driven by pursuit of profit. They only teach and listen to those aspects of the Classics which they feel are of use to them, reading the Classics for the things they want to hear. They are even willing to sacrifice the original meaning of the Classics and create their own interpretation, while still claiming to teach the Classics. Hermeneutically speaking, this is reading meaning into the text (I expound the Classics), but it is only when we approach the Classics seeking to read meaning out of the text (the Classics expound me) that our pursuit of truth will be successful. Evangelists in the church should be careful: if they, like Yu Dan, put the Scriptures to one side, substituting mindless meditation for rigorous study, and teaching whatever the audience wants to hear with no consideration for what the Bible itself actually says, then the resulting knowledge and illumination will end up a million miles from the truth of the Bible. The exegete must first accept the Bibles pattern of sound teaching as his standard; otherwise the church will be destroyed by all kinds of extreme ideas and heresies. These problems must be taken seriously.
The main thing Yu Dan does in teaching The Analects is to quote extensively from tales ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign, and cobble it all together into an entertaining story, hoping to give everyone a good old listen. She herself admitted frankly in an interview with Life Week Magazine that, reading The Analects doesnt need to be a lofty business. I dont do much preparation, I just pour myself a glass of water, sit and meditate for a while, and think of a little story to match some aspect of The Analects teaching on human conduct. I start with a blank piece of paper, write a topic on one side and a little story on the other. Then I play around and fit them together. As someone with a media studies background, Yu Dan claims that if one makes the Classics too profound, no one will want to listen. Well then, she sees no point in conducting detailed study into the profundities of the Classics; all she has to do is to get up on the platform and begin to preach, leading the audience out of the technicalities of the Classics and into a storytelling session, while at the same time making the audience think she is terribly erudite.
This method of preparation and preaching bears a striking resemblance to the way many preachers within the church prepare their talks and sermons. Before the sermon they decide on a topic, find a Bible passage, then start to look around for a bunch of stories and testimonies. When they get up to preach they announce the topic, read out the Bible passage, then begin to conduct a storytelling session or testimony session, blissfully unaware that they may even have wandered completely off topic. As time goes on, a tacit agreement is reached between preacher and congregation: they are only interested in this type of Bible teaching – even though this type of sermon lacks both Bible and teaching! This type of church has no time for deep study of the Bible, dismissing this as reading a dead book, expounding the letter which kills. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. Perhaps this lesson from the Bible will be a warning and a rebuke to such churches.
Yu Dan idealistically believes that, the true meaning of the The Analects is to tell us how to achieve the happy life that our souls need. Based on this principle, Yu Dan rewrites The Analects with a pragmatic approach, wandering from the laws in the Classics and recklessly bringing in her own new meaning. She then imposes all of this on Confucius, that sweet old man who goes out to play with his students (this is how Yu Dan wants to repackage Confucius). If this principle were correct, then a thousand people could produce a thousand different versions of The Analects. However, the Classics are fixed and unique, and any alternative can only be a fake.
Nowadays, when we teach from the Bible we use it in all sorts of different ways without thinking twice about it: as a moral textbook for self-cultivation, or as a collection of wisdom for life, or as a work of literature. But if we preach in this way, we are not preaching Gods word. All Scripture is inspired by God, so that people may know that in it they have eternal life. The preachers job is to preach the embodied word of God: Jesus Christ, and not just to show off the preachers own learning by making speeches on life philosophy or practical wisdom. The learned Apostle Paul resolved only to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified: this is the mark of a true preacher.
On the platforms of our churches, some people intentionally or unintentionally sacrifice the original meaning of the Bible, distorting its content and lowering the standard of truth to pander to the tastes of the congregation. For example, evangelism is often shaped by a theology of glory, like a salesman who only talks about the benefits of his product and not about its shortcomings. This kind of evangelist is deft in teaching the parts of the Bible that are about blessing, yet he neglects the cost of being a disciple and the link between the cross and the crown of blessing. To do this is to remove the core of the Bible – Jesus Christ who went to the cross for mankinds sin – and to deface beyond recognition the truth of the Bible. This is already a different gospel.
Teaching that promises fullness of blessing without the hardship of the cross is particularly suited to todays fast-track, hedonistic tastes. It brings a remarkable number of word consumers flooding into the church in no time at all, producing a large batch of listeners (although what they listen to is no longer the word). The church does want numbers, but it wants numbers of saved people who seek the truth of the Bible and have turned to the true word. It is not interested in growth and revival that merely consist of filling empty seats. The growth of the church should be concerned from start to finish with both quantity and quality. The revival of the church is primarily about a thirst for Biblical truth, a revival of the true word – otherwise it will just come and go, like a flower that blossoms and fades in one night.
For further reading on Yu Dan and the resurgence of Confucianism:
Yu Dan and China's Return to Confucius (April 29, 2007, The New York Times)
She Makes Confucius Cool Again (May 7, 2008, The Los Angeles Times)
Yu Dan: Defender of Traditional Culture; Force for Harmony (May 8, 2008, Danwei)
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.