Literature and art are indispensable parts of Christian culture. At present, the Chinese Christian community is discussing the issue of the Sinicization of Christianity, trying to walk out a path of Christianity with Chinese local characteristics. This article from Christian Times introduces Christian literature from around the world and China specifically, and what it means to have Christian elements in literature and art, and the implications for evangelism.
The Path of Christian Literature Development in China
Before Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension, he left his disciples with a great mission, that is, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). In order to fulfill this mission, Christians have been swimming against the current and facing worldly challenges for over two thousand years.These challenges are mainly ideological. In the conflict and struggle against secular views, Christians throughout the generations have been sanctified, overcome difficulties, and moved forward against the current. And they have spread the name of Christ and illuminated the whole world.
The spread of the gospel has always been ideological, and closely related to the individual’s thoughts and spiritual life. To achieve the purpose of evangelism, Christians generally use three methods. First, to preach the gospel by mouth, such as preaching at evangelistic meetings. Second, to influence people around them through personal words and deeds, for example, to influence family members and unbelieving friends and colleagues, so that they accept the gospel. Third, to spread the gospel through culture, such as issuing leaflets, writing books, producing various artistic works, films, and songs. Compared with the first and second methods, spreading the gospel through culture is longer lasting, has more influence, and can build on those who have gone before as well as reach future generations.
The scope of culture is very broad, covering history, geography, customs and traditions, lifestyle, music, painting, sculpture, philosophy, literature, folklore and so on. It is in these fields that the Christians of the past have been pioneers, constructing a grand field where the world of abundance meets the living water of Christianity. This field is the spectacular “Christian Culture” we often talk about. It is this cultural torrent that has impacted and subverted the old cultural and social order, brought the dark world into the light, and gave humanity who was sunken deep in sin the hope of being redeemed by God.
Literature and art are an indispensable and important part in Christian culture with magnificent achievements. Statistics shows that among the world’s masterpieces and works that have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, more than 90% of the works contain Christian elements, and more than a few have themes and subjects taken directly from the Bible. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy, a famous piece of world literature, takes its subject from the Bible. This book connects the stories in the Bible with major political events in medieval Italy as well as some political figures and creates a great epic full of mystical religious elements. Although the poet Dante criticized and exposed the darkness in the church in his works, he still pursued pure Christian thought.
Another example is the historical novel Quo Vadis, written by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. The book drew from historical events of the Roman Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in AD 60. The novel portrays the moving and riveting love story of the young Christian woman Lygia and the young general Marcus Vinicius. It reflects the extravagant lifestyle of the Roman tyrant Nero, as well as the brutal tyranny and persecution of Christians. This novel also portrays the tragic image of the persecution and crucifixion of Peter, the disciple of Christ Jesus.
Christian literature in the West is vast as the ocean. Some reflect the characters and stories in the Bible, some reflect the lives of church believers, and some reflect the thoughts and concepts of the Bible. However, due to historical and political reasons, only a few pieces of Christian literature can be found in China. The most notable are the literary works in modern literature that displayed Christian thought and consciousness. Examples include poems such as Bing Xin’s Evening, The Garden of Gethsemane, and Calvary, Xu Zhimo’s Decision, That Last Day, Inspiration of Love and In Vain, Ai Qing’s Illness Supervision and Manger, Chen Mengjia’s Who Am I and Song for Myself.
There are novels as well, including Xu Dishan’s The Merchant’s Wife and Yu Guan, Ba Jin’s Destruction and Ward Four, Guo Moruo’s Falling Leaves, Yu Dafu’s Migrating to the South, Lao She’s Lao Zhang’s Philosophy, etc. Whether poetry or novels, the themes all come from Christian ideas of repentance, love, and sacrifice. This period of Christian literature may be described as brilliant as the stars. However, just like the shooting star flashes and then is gone, this phenomenon has never happened again.
Nonetheless, novels and poems that reflect Christian thought and consciousness still exist, but only as the dragonfly skipping over the water, briefly appearing only now and then. The novels of Mo Yan, a writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, shows heavy Christian influence. For example, the ideas of repentance and original sin are very clear in Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Frog, Red Sorghum, and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. The short story Waiting for Moses published last year even directly drew from the life of Christians. Other writers such as Bei Cun and Shi Wei are attempting to create Christian literature also and have gained some recognition. Especially Shi Wei’s novel The Apostate has already had a wide range of influence overseas. However, the rise of Christian literature still has a long way to go.
Currently, Christians are discussing the Sinicization of Christianity, and are trying to find a Christian path with Chinese characteristics. The purpose of this discussion is not to fit Christianity within the box of traditional culture and let traditional culture replace Christian culture. Neither is it to let Christian culture change traditional culture, rather it is to give an opportunity for the two to integrate together, and to make full use of their good and beautiful elements to promote the development and progress of the entire society. Calling for and promoting the rise of Christian literature would complement such discussions very well, because literature is a reflection of society. To integrate Christian culture’s sense of repentance, original sin, love, and sacrifice into traditional Chinese culture, and then express it in the form of literature and art, would undoubtedly be greatly beneficial in promoting the progress and development of society.
The Bible has become the most widely spread classic in the world for both Christians and non-believers. To believers, it is a collection of God’s inspired words, encompassing God-revealed truth on multiple levels. It is a living treasure that Christians could not go without for even a moment. For non-believers, the Bible is a magnificent cultural treasure, rich and broad, its contents profound. It reflects the earliest political, economic, and cultural characteristics of mankind. It established ancient Hebrew culture, and through the process of fusion with Greek culture, produced Christian culture. The Bible has become the foundation and pillar of the development of the entire Western culture. It has penetrated all areas and promoted the development of human civilization. From the perspective of faith, this is obviously God’s work, and God’s grace has enlightened every step of the development and progress of human beings.
The Bible is not only the most widely circulated and most influential book in the world, but is also a great literary work. It contains various genres, including poems, biographies, novels, scripts, prose, stories, etc. We can say that the Bible is the living source of the entirety of Christian culture, and an inexhaustible, wealthy mine of literary works. In addition, when a Christian submits to the constraints of Christian beliefs and thought, his spiritual life will change as well. This greatly affects his personal choices, ideological interest, cultural mentality, values, and aesthetic orientation, which further forms a group with unique thinking and ways of living. When this group collides and merges with other groups in society, there will occur a series of stories unique to Christian life. And these can be our inspiration for creation.
Christianity mentioned here includes Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic and many other factions. Due to the country’s relaxed religious policy and freedom of religion, a large number of cultural Christians have entered the church, and there is no lack of talent when it comes to literary creation. What is lacking now is church leaders’ and pastors’ understanding of the issue. At present, our evangelism is restricted to within the church, and we lack a necessary preparation for broadening and extending God’s temple. In fact, activities within the church are not considered evangelism. Evangelism is aimed at people outside the church. For those who have already entered the church and become believers, what they need now is shepherding and the lifting up of their lives. For non-believers outside of the church, the only way is to evangelize them through Christian culture. And the subtle transformative influence of literature is the powerful key to the depths of the souls of non-believers.
How to identify the works of Christian literature? The standard should not only depend on whether the author is a Christian, but on whether the works contain elements of the Christian faith. Any work that reflects original sin and an understanding of confession, as well as love and sacrifice, should be regarded as Christian literature. Narrowmindedness and extremism in faith are the great enemies of Christian life and run contrary to the spirit of tolerance and forgiveness of Christ. In a word, we should avoid narrowmindedness and extremism in understanding Christian literature.
At present, there are a number of media platforms for publishing Christian literature. As long as we work hard and pray for God to give us wisdom and ability, the rise of Christian literature will not be far.
Image credit: Money Bright, Chinese books via Flickr.
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