NPR on China’s Christian awakening

ANXIAN COUNTY, CHINA - JULY 20: (CHINA OUT) Christians from quake-struck areas read scripture during religious services at a temporary church on July 20, 2008 in Anxian County of Sichuan Province, China. Chinese leaders have set repairing and building homes for people affected by May's earthquake as a national priority. The death toll after the May 12 earthquake stands at 69,000. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

NPR yesterday began a multi-part series on the rise of religious belief in China’s spiritual vacuum. And it’s not off to a good start.

Don’t get me wrong: This is an interesting and timely subject. The discussion of religious freedom and the countryside vignettes of faith were important. And the numbers were eye-opening.

The first story, which will be followed today with a feature about China’s divided Catholics, was about the People’s Republic’s Protestant awakening. It was an unusually long report — more than 10 minutes (hear it here) — and that should be applauded.

But I’m not sure reporter Louisa Lim is up to the challenge. I just couldn’t shake my belief that she didn’t get Protestantism.

The most poignant example was this line about China’s 395th richest men, who found Jesus during a two-month stint in the pokey:

He did get out after 69 days, and that convinced him to become a devout Christian.

I’ve heard of people being born-again — that alone is a commonly overused and overly vague descriptor — but I’ve never heard of, much less met anyone, who decided to become a devout Christian.

Without even addressing the dangers of the d-word, there’s just not a lot of sense to suggesting that someone who had a road-to-Damascus moment would think they could choose between becoming a devout or cafeteria Christian. They’re just becoming a Christian. As Jesus told the disciple who wanted to first bury his father: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

There also appeared to be some confusion in this story about what people meant when they talked about applying Christian ethical principles to their professional decisions. Speaking again with Zheng Shengtao, the rich young ruler known as a “boss Christian,” Lim said:

He believes that making money is literally doing God’s work.

Now where did she get that? From this quote:

We have to be the salt of the earth. We don’t bribe officials to make money or make fake products or harm the customers’ interests or evade tax. We don’t think the wealth belongs to us. We’re just like bank clerks. It’s God who gives you the career and the wealth and asks you to manage them.

But the two don’t necessarily add up.

What Zheng’s comment suggests is that when he works, he works as a Christian — it’s no longer acceptable for him to bribe officials or behave in underhanded ways. That’s not the same as Zheng saying he is making hundreds of millions of yuan because God told him to make lots of money either for his own enjoyment or for the benefit of Christianity in China.

You’ll notice other areas where language is tossed around a little too loosely. Is a group of youngsters holding a worship service in a “dusty rural village” really rise to the level of “flouting the law against proselytizing?”

Maybe. But I’m not sure. I’m not there. And after some of the other hiccups in this story, I’m not willing to take the descriptions at their word.

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  • tmatt

    Once again, note the intense interest of American news consumers in the coverage of foreign news.


  • Julia

    I was waiting to see how NPR would further develop the story about Catholics.

    IN the meantime:

    That link between belief and wealth is also apparent in the emergence of “boss Christians,” or Christian entrepreneurs, in Wenzhou. Academics say they are helping the rapid spread of Christianity in China by building churches elsewhere to spread the “Wenzhou brand” of Christianity.

    I hope NPR will fill out this aspect of the story. What does “boss” Christians mean? Are they church planters? Are they leaders in the community. What denomination?
    Why the term “boss”?

  • Julia

    Now on to the 2nd edition – the one on Catholics.

    In a bid to assert authority over China’s Catholics, Beijing cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 and began the practice of ordaining its own bishops, some without the approval of the pope.

    This is very vague. Who is Beijing? the government?

    Who began the practice of ordaining “its” own bishops?
    the government?

    I’m thinking this writer doesn’t understand the concept of bishops being in an apostolic line. The problem is not just that there is no Vatican approval. And it’s more than approval; I’ve sung at the installation Mass of a number of bishops – an official paper comes from Rome, is read and is inspected publicly for authenticity by the gathered bishops and priests, and the assembly claps to show its agreement. The installation is then done by 2 recognized bishops who are in the apostolic line.

    It is also rather mushy to say one group is official according to the Chinese government and the other is “loyal” to the Vatican/Pope. It isn’t just loyalty – concrete mutual recognition is needed to be in good standing. The “official” Chinese Patriotic Association is technically schismatic. The former seminarian head of that group is a big roadblock. That is obvious without the reporter pointing it out.

    “The problem of ordination of bishops doesn’t stem from the Chinese church. If there are no diplomatic ties and we want to choose bishops, how could we report back to the Vatican? If you want to solve the problem, you should have already established diplomatic ties,” he says.

    This is the situation that pertained in France for several centuries – the government’s insistence that it could name bishops and just report the names to the Pope. Problem is that then the bishops are not independent of government control; the bishops are likely to be political or patronage flunkies. No Western country today insists on naming Catholic bishops any more than it does Episcopalian or AME bishops. China is behaving toward the Catholic Church more like Russia since the Orthodox have regained their standing with the Russian government.

    But I must say that this is a very good report. Lots of people are interviewed from all kinds of viewpoints. The listener/reader can try to figure out for himself what is going on. Since it is such a delicate matter, the Vatican is not publicly making the situation clear to outsiders.

    The episode is light on analysis, but this is just too complex for the amount of space/time allotted. By the end it’s pretty understandable why there is such a deep split that will have much trouble healing.

    A savvy reporter might compare the situation in China to the big uproar about early Christians who had sacrificed to the gods to save their skin and now that Constantine had made Christianity legal they were sorry and wanted back into the good graces of the church. Those who risked their property, safety and life were understandably not happy just welcoming them back. And in China there’s still that big, totalitarian government wanting to control everything.

    Good report.

    Now I’m anxious to read the one on Protestants and see if there is an official Protestant Patriotic Association and what kind of mischief it is causing.

  • Julia

    OK Now on to the episode on Protestants.

    The official church is part of what’s called the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the state-sanctioned Protestant organization. Three-Self refers to the strategy launched in the 1950s of removing foreign influences from Chinese churches — self-governance, self-support, self-propagation.

    Interesting, but nothing is mentioned about Lutherans or Baptists or Presbyterians. Are they all lumped together?
    Nothing is said about them. Do they not lend themselves well to “house churches”?

    There is no mention of any tense split between the official and underground Protestant churches as was stressed in the Catholic episode. Do they all get along OK? Have any of the unofficial church leaders been imprisoned like the Catholics?

    The Catholic episode should have at least mentioned the very well-known Cardinal Kung/Gong who spent 30 years in a Chinese prison and then long-term house arrest before being allowed to move to the US in his late 80s.

    This link to a list of many who were jailed – as of 2009. .

    This link has explanations of the Catholic situation in China from the Catholic viewpoint, including paraphrasing of the 2007 letter from Benedict that is mentioned in the story.

    - – - – - -

    I could find episodes 1, 2, and 5, but not 3 & 4.

    Were the Orthodox be addressed in 3 or 4? Especially since China has or had a long relationship with Russia, I would expect there to be some Orthodox in China. No?

    And what about Muslims? Is the Chinese government easing up on them, too? Supposedly there are problems in the far West of China where the government is moving in many Han to dilute the Muslim presence. Or that’s what I read in the National Geographic not that long ago.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Not to get too semantic here, but what, exactly, does it mean to be “religious” in China? I don’t much about Chinese religion, but what little I’ve read describes traditional Chinese religious practice as a blend of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism that often expresses itself in ways that don’t match the Western idea of “religion.” Take this this quote from the NPR story:

    Since 2006, the position of China’s government has been that religion can be a force for good toward the ultimate aim of creating a “harmonious society.”

    Isn’t that idea – the “harmonious society” – taken directly from Confucianism?

    Later in the story:

    …after the communist revolution in 1949, the government recognized five official religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Daoism and Islam. For each of them, associations were set up to supervise and monitor religious practice.

    Where’s Confucianism? Is it even viewed as a “religion” in China? Does the Communist government reject it (perhaps as a remnant of imperialism?) or embrace it? I’m extremely curious to know where it fits in this “spiritual vacuum.”

  • Stephen Hoyle

    In response to Julia, yes, all the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, etc. were required to join the government-sponsored Protestant church, which presumably has meant a muting of denominational differences. There sometimes is tension between the official Protestants and house church Protestants and the latter have sometimes faced problems because of their “unofficial status.” To the best of my understanding, the house churches do not have denominations per se, but some groups of house churches exhibit certain theological leanings, like Pentacostalism, reformed theology, etc.

    In response to Mike Hickerson, Confucianism is technically not a religion; it is rather a system of personal and social ethics. However, Confucius (and his disciples) have traditionally been venerated in Confucian temples (sacrifices offered to them, etc.), so arguable it has some trappings of a religion.

  • Stephen Hoyle

    A follow-up on my previous response, regarding Confucianism–the status of Confucianism has varied over China’s history. During the days of the emperors, it was a sort of state ideology. In the early twentieth century, many Chinese intellectuals blamed China’s “backwardness” on the conservatism they saw as being inherent in Confucianism. The Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalists) sought to revive Confucianism as a guide to proper conduct. The Communists initially viewed Confucius as the epitome of all that was bad about the old “feudal society,” but in more recent years, Confucianism has made something of a comeback, as a means of inculcating a sense of social responsibility and stressing the need for social harmony.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Not to put to fine a point on it, but…a system of personal and societal ethics that includes temples and makes claims about ultimate reality sure sounds like a religion to me.

    Regardless, Confucianism is not categorized as a religion for the purposes of the Communist Party of China, which in turn means that there’s not an official association regulating its teaching and practice. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has named its international outreach program the Confucius Institute, while the Wikipedia article on Religion in China cites an unfortunately dead link about the rapid growth of Confucianism due to official government support. A quick search of the state-run China Daily turned up over 500 articles mentioning Confucianism.

    Whether it’s a religion or a philosophy, it seems like Confucianism is an enormous elephant in the room in this NPR series.

  • Stephen Hoyle

    In response to Mike Hickerson, yes, having temples and a system of personal and social ethics would make Confucianism seem like a religion. However, whether Confucianism originally made “claims about ultimate reality” is somewhat debatable. For example, I believe the Analects (collected sayings of Confucius) state that Confucius did not say much about spirits and gods, which has been taken as evidence that he was an agnotistic or even an atheist (this is the interpretation I suspect the Communists might like to give). However, such language may only suggest that Confucius was more this-wordly than other-wordly in his orientation, that he was not necessarily denying the existence of the supernatural. During later centuries there developed something called neo-Confucianism, in which metaphysical ideas from Taoism and Buddhism were introduced into Confucian philosophy, so at that point I suppose one could say Confucianism made claims about ultimate reality.

    Yes, it is true that the Chinese government has gone all out to promote Confucianism, but in its own image. In the old Confucian academy in Beijing, there is an exhibit on the life of Confucius that emphasizes how forward-thinking and even scientific Confucius was, which is very much how the current Chinese government would like to portray him. Moreover, the Confucian emphasis on respect for authority and social harmony is very much to the government’s taste. Yet in the 1970s Confucius (and Confucianism) was denounced by the Communist Party for being “ultrareactionary”! Also, Confucianism is associated with traditional Chinese culture, which the Chinese government seems keen on promoting as a means of encouraging patriotic pride, yet in the past it tried to do away with many aspects of that traditional culture due to its “backwardness.”