Wednesday 24 February 2016

Christianity in China - notice of A Star in the East by Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang

A Star in the East - The rise of Christianity in China by Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang. Templeton Press: PA, USA, 2015. pp xi, 148 (126 pages of text, plus references and index

This book is an overview of the history of Christianity in China, plus the results and interpretation of several modern surveys. The authors estimate that there were about 60 million Christian in China in 2007, with a (phenomenal!) growth rate of about 7 percent per year. Many people are both Christians and members of the communist party - so these trends could, if continued, make a significant difference to the Chinese government over the medium term of a few decades.

On the other hand, there continue to be episodes of harsh suppression, destruction and persecution directed against Christians. There is a moving, and inspiring, section of the book which examines the lives, and sufferings, of several individual Christian missionaries, converts and leaders in the history of China.

Mostly the new Chines Christians are Protestants, dispersed among very numerous denominations including many tiny and secret home churches, as well as large and obvious buildings.

But there is a substantial minority of Roman Catholics - reflecting that Catholicism was the original denomination which used to dominate China before waves of repression hit Christians through the twentieth century due to wars, nationalism and (especially) communism.

The authors believe that the general style and structure of Catholicism was more in-line with established Chinese cultural religious preferences, and while the Church was allowed it grew fast. But the Catholic church was much easier to suppress than Protestantism, because of its dependence on an identifiable minority of priests and dependence on Rome for new bishops; and Catholicism was (not for the first time) seen as anti-Chinese and actually or potentially disloyal due to its authority being headed by a foreigner (i.e. The Pope).

Some of the themes familiar to me from Rodney Stark's previous work are seen here. He shows that modern Chinese Christianity is stronger among the more-educated 'upper' classes than among the poorer - and finds this same pattern in Hong King, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan (although these nations have very different proportions of Christians).

Stark also sees detailed validation in China of his hypothesis that religions spread through societies mainly via close personal networks - extended families and close friends - with modelling on lifestyles (not doctrine) being the most usual proximate factor in conversions. He has noted this in earlier work on Christian conversion including the origins of Christianity, and of Mormonism. Particularly important in rapid growth is the conversion of powerful, prestigious individuals with close and extensive social ties - upper class men, chiefs, clan leaders etc. 

In sum, I carried away an impression that while mechanisms may be familiar, things in general are very different in China than the West - with a number of trends going in opposite directions. I am confident that the massive Christian revival in China is A Good Thing, but I am skeptical of its effect on the society as a whole - or, at least, it is unpredictable, unknowable. Stark doesn't look at fertility among Christians - presumably data is unavailable or unreliable - but with a Total Fertility Rate of only about 1.5 per woman, China is (like The West) going extinct in the long term, ageing in the short term - deliberately so since there have been decades of a one-child per woman policy.

However, Chinese fertility is on the one hand above one - yet not, on the other hand, so low as in other East Asian countries such as South Korea and Hong Kong which are about 1.3 - so it is debatable how much effect the one-child policy has had.

Can anything be learned from this account that is applicable and helpful in The West? I am not sure - except that China already has about as many active Christians as Europe, and may well outstrip the USA - even though as a proportion of the population of Chinese Christians only amounts to about 5 percent.

Indeed, one thing I learned from this book was how little I know about China - especially the staggering scale of things that have happened in China and about which I did not know - such as the Taiping Rebellion of the middle 1800s:

A man called Hong Xiuquan formed the Society of God Worshippers in 1845, claiming to be the Chinese Son of God and younger brother of Jesus. Beginning with his family and friends in a mountain village of Guangxi Province, by 1850 he had 10-30,000 followers and a year later had twice defeated Imperial troops who had been sent to disperse the new religion.

Another few tears and a large area of southern China around Nanjing containing about 30 million people had become the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

The groups was eventually defeated in 1864, and Hong was killed, by Imperial Troops staffed by European (including British) Officers when they tried to take Shanghai. By the time the Rebellion was fully suppressed about 20-30 million people had died - which was not far short of the 1914-18 World War.

From this, and other new-to-me information, I conclude that the massive, dense population of China makes things very different in kind from the situation elsewhere - and I don't know how to evaluate the significance of the ongoing massive expansion of Christianity in China in terms of relevance to the West - not even to guess what effect it might have.

Although I am delighted by the data on growing Christianity in China - it is hard to know what exactly is actually growing, since Christianity is dispersed among thousands of autonomous churches, and is furthermore often very secretive. I am also worried by the 2:1 domination by women which may not be organisationally viable long term, and may reflect a lack of institutional vigour.

Still, it seems that the Chinese spiritual situation is far healthier, overall, than that of the West - and there are more grounds for optimism in the medium to long term.

Objectively, China may still - like the West - be committing slow spiritual and social suicide overall; but it is possible that in China - un-like the West - many people may have repented, and the number be expanding; and an opposite trend towards national religiousness, self-confidence and spiritual hope may well have become established and be strengthening. 

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