A Brief History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings, Endings, and Reflections
By R. LaMon Brown and Michael D. Crane
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
I read this book solely because one of its authors—Dr. LaMon Brown—is a long-time friend of mine; but you should read this book because it tells one of the most important stories in the history of the world: how the Good News of God—the story of Jesus, Christianity—arrived in Asia, and survived and thrived; and how it is faring today.
Our knowledge and notions of Christianity are so shaped by its history in the western part of the world: Europe and America; so much so, that even well-educated people (like myself!) have almost no knowledge of what is in this book. Aside from a few familiar names (William Carey, J Hudson Taylor and Watchman Nee in recent centuries and Nestorius and Francis Xavier in earlier centuries), all the material in this book is new to me!
The history recounted is one of Orthodox and Catholic successes (and failures) for the first 1700 years followed by the great centuries of western missionary efforts (1800-2000)—mostly Protestant, Pentecostal, and Evangelical. Today, some of the great centers of Christian life are in Asia (South Korea, for instance), and some people project not only that Asia will once again be the global center of Christianity, but that China will soon have the largest Christian population in the world. Hard to believe!
Hard to believe because, over the centuries, there has been so much tension between and among Christian leaders in these countries—so this book describes—but also because there has been so much resistance: cultural, political, and ideological. Time and again, the book tells the story of persecution and martyrdom.
I was especially interested in three elements of this book. First, how the coming of Christianity into Asia for the last five hundred years has been compromised by its companion: colonialism! Which means that the resistance to Christianity (and persecution of Christianity!) has often been part of a larger push-back against the type of cultural and economic exploitation that colonialism brought to all corners of the world.
Second, I was fascinated by the first-person accounts of conversion. This has been an interest of mine for years, prompted and nourished by the testimonies of Augustine, Thomas Merton, C. S. Lewis, Eugenia Price, Charles Colson, Francis Collins, and Kris Kristofferson (among others). Some of the conversion stories embedded in this book were amazing in their detail and effect. It made me reflect once again on the importance of the International Declaration of Human Rights, especially article 18:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Third, I was most interested in the Three-Self Movement that developed in parts of Asia (especially China) as a strategy for building an indigenous expression of Christianity: self-support, self-governance, and self-propagation. These movements were responding to the double-sided difficulty: dealing with western missionary authorities (such as mission organizations) and dealing also with governments (especially those in Asia not hospitable to Christian work).
These two hundred pages were, obviously, too limiting to deal adequately with the subject; the book is intended, it seems, to be on the reading list of a college or seminary course in the history of Christianity. But it largely omitted the one element that so interests me: the nature of Christian community and worship in these diverse settings. What did these Christians actually do when they gathered? How many used a western-style liturgy? Did they pray the Lord’s Prayer and recite the Apostle’s Creed? Was baptism by sprinkling or immersion and was it for adults only? Much attention was given to the history of Bible translations but little to how the Bible was used in communal life.
Besides that, I wished every moment and on every page for maps. Where are all these places named and described in this splendid book? How wonderful to have perhaps one big fold-out map or even a cyber link to a set of maps that could connect the reading to the real world.
Thanks, dear friend LaMon, for writing this book and for sending me a copy. It was worth every minute and more!
(posted November 2019)