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.