While histories of the Western Church abound, introductory histories to Asian Christianity are few and far between (the chief of which remains Samuel Moffett’s 2 volume History of Christianity in Asia. Moffett’s account, unfortunately, terminates in 1900). The publication of Peter Phan’s Christianities in Asia (CA) is therefore timely, since it plugs an important gap and also provides, in a slim volume, a wide range of insightful materials that Christians will find useful for ministry in Asia.
Given the historical and cultural diversity of Asia, CA cannot but be a collaborative work involving many specialists. It is to the credit of Phan and his contributors that CA has turned out to be very readable and has largely met its aim of being a “tour guide” for Asian Christianities. The book is written with the premise that while Asian Christians may share a basic set of beliefs and practices, the way that this faith is expressed is very diverse, depending on the political, cultural and religious contexts of each region or country. This rich “Christian multiformity” is to be seen in the chapters that follow, which cover virtually every Asian country except for Central Asia.
The first and last chapters feature some of the earliest churches in Christian history: the Church of India, and Middle Eastern churches such as the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, Coptic, Maronite and the Armenian Churches and the Church of the East. Despite the early challenges of evangelizing a religiously pluralistic environment, Indian Christianity has continued to survive, and, in many cases, thrive, especially when it was able to indigenize its religious expressions. As for Middle Eastern churches, the success of its early years was more than overtaken by the recent centuries of Islamic rule and persecution. To date, many of these churches have either ceased to exist or are still struggling to survive.
For the rest of the Asian countries, however, their encounter with Christianity was initiated first through the missionary efforts of 16th-century Catholic missionaries, followed by that of 19th- century Protestants. Even so, the fortunes and development of Christianity in each country proved to be uneven, and were often bound up intimately with the local political and religious conditions. Take Sri Lanka, for example. Although Portuguese Catholicism was the first to flourish on the island, it was eventually overshadowed by the Reformed faith and, later on, the Anglicanism and English evangelicalism of her later Dutch and British colonial masters. In the last 50 years, however, the strongest challenge for Sri Lankan Christians has turned out to be the ruling Sinhala Buddhists, who have done much to restrict local Christian activity.
A mixed picture is seen in the region of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Despite enduring 300 years of persecution by local and, in the 20th century, communist regimes, Vietnamese Catholicism continues to prosper, alongside a small but growing Protestant presence. A similar result, unfortunately, was not forthcoming in adjacent Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, where Christians continue to be a minority.
In the case of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, both Catholic and Protestant missionary efforts have been largely successful. To be sure, the story of Mainland China Christianity is chequered with persecutions, from the Nestorian mission to the Tang Dynasty till the violent onslaught of the communist regime in the mid 20th century, due largely to the Chinese suspicion of Christianity as a foreign religion and a mark of imperialism. Since the 1980s, however, Chinese Christianity has enjoyed an unparalleled growth, in tandem with Chinese economic reforms. Nevertheless, it remains doubtful whether it will ever become a dominant cultural force in the country. For churches in Taiwan and Hong Kong, some of their highest growth last century was due to the significant influx of Mainland Christians after the communist takeover. Since then, Christianity has a become significant cultural and social movement in both places, through the churches’ provision of education, medical, welfare and even publishing services. As for Christianity in Macau, it pales in comparison with her two neighbours, since Christians remain a minority even after 400 years of missionary effort.
Despite their cultural similarities, Korea and Japan have turned out to be rather different in their reception of Christianity. In Japan, Christianity never did overcome its minority status. In contrast, Korean Christianity has more than overcome local suspicions, and now constitutes 30% of the population. In the case of Protestant churches, this is due most likely to their ability to meet the social needs of the people, whether it is through their provision of social services, participation in Korea’s fight for independence, or ability to meet the communal needs of the rapidly urbanising nation.
Turning to former British colonies, Malaysia and Singapore, church growth was a less turbulent affair, even though Christianity continued to be seen as a foreign and colonial religion. In recent years, however, Malaysia’s ruling party has advanced a policy of Islamising public institutions, with the net result that local Christians are finding their religious freedom increasingly curtailed. As for Christians in Singapore, it would appear that they have adopted a more “silent and compliant” stance towards the ruling secular government, in exchange for the freedom of internal growth.
To be sure, a reader might find himself lost in the rich tapestry that unfolds in each chapter. Nevertheless, he should take comfort that the value of reading CA lies not so much so in information gathering (important though this may be). Rather, the more important role of these chapters is to function as ‘case studies’ that demonstrate the value of contextual analysis and how it may be done fruitfully. The reader who perseveres through these chapters, would surely gain greater ability to examine the many-fold interactions between Christianity and the local cultures, and many useful insights as to how one may effectively indigenise the Christian faith. Apart from this, CA is also a rich resource for the historical and cultural background necessary for any fruitful engagement with Asians. Take Mainland China, for example. For a new visitor to the country, it is immensely helpful to be able to distinguish between the Three-Self Church and the house churches, and to recognise the tensions between the two, so that one can be more empathic in dialogue with a local Christian.
Despite its many strengths, CA is not without its weaknesses. First of all, while every contributor does try to provide a comprehensive coverage of the Christian traditions in each country or region, not all are successful. Indeed, there are some chapters where the coverage of local Catholicism clearly overshadows those of other traditions. This is hardly surprising in view that more 50% of the contributors are associated with the Catholic tradition and therefore can only write from their area of specialisation. Secondly, as a Singapore resident, I find the chapter on Malaysia and Singapore not entirely satisfactory on two counts. First, the discussion seems to focus much more on Malaysian Christianity, especially its Catholic forms. Second, the contributor seems to adopt a stereotypical ‘American’ interpretation of Singapore as an authoritarian state, one that hardly promotes religious freedom. In doing so, the author, I think, fails to take into account the pluralistic religious context that Singapore has to navigate, being home to four major religions. Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the country would err on the conservative in matters on religion and be suspicious of any discourse that might tear asunder the fragile fabric of religious harmony on the island.
Not withstanding these reservations, Christianities in Asia remains a rewarding read and is warmly commended to all interested to find out about the diverse and marvelous work that God has undertaken in this region through the centuries.
Reviewed by Dr Lai Pak Wah