Simon Chan, a theologian living in Singapore, is convinced that most theologians these days are out of touch with the spiritual needs of grassroots Christian communities. In Grassroots Asian Theology, his focus is on Asian Christianity, but he is also concerned with larger questions about the way we do theology. Several times, he cites an unnamed Catholic theologian who observed that, in Latin America, “Liberation theology opted for the poor, and the poor has opted for Pentecostalism.” That comment, Chan argues, also nicely captures the state of theology in Asia. Evangelical theologians, both Western and Asian, have failed to equip local believers with the kind of robust theology that resonates strongly within their own communities.
The disconnect is largely due, in Chan’s account, to ingrained theological habits among “elite” theologians. When thinking about Asia, they typically focus on a particular cultural factor, stressing the necessity of working for political and economic justice, or for addressing the oppressiveness of patriarchy, or for engaging other religions in dialogue. If local Christian communities do not see those approaches as meeting their needs, these theologians assume, it is because they are victimized by “bad faith.” Grassroots believers, then, need to be brought to an awareness of the realities that actually plague their lives.
The reality is, however, that grassroots Christians in Asia have a profound grasp of their own situation, though their impressions differ sharply from those of “elite” theologies. These believers seek out church communities in which these cultural realities are taken seriously in the light of the gospel. And the most common expression of these communities is charismatic and Pentecostal in nature.
Asia’s “Middle Zone”
How, then, can evangelical theologians can best serve these communities? Chan’s solution calls to mind the wonderful phrase made popular in the 19th century by Cardinal John Henry Newman: the sensus fidelium, or “the sense of the faithful.” To discern the core concerns of grassroots Christian communities in Asia, we must engage (as Chan’s subtitle puts it) in “thinking the faith from the ground up.”This means getting inside the perspective of Asia’s local church communities, rather than imposing an outside perspective.
Following the lead of evangelical missiologists Paul Hiebert, Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou, Chan observes that Asian believers live spiritually in the “middle zone”—a region of engagement falling between topics of “high theology” (the Trinity, Christ’s atonement, the end times) and questions of modern science. Local communities live within “the realm of spirits, demons, and witch doctors,” struggling daily with issues of fertility, economic well-being, familial relations, health, and relations with “the living dead.”
It is a mistake, Chan argues, to judge these preoccupations as expressions of syncretism and superstition. To issue that verdict is to neglect the close theological connections between traditional Asian religion and biblical Christianity. To be sure, simply assuming those connections uncritically can lead to dangers. Evangelicals will best serve these fellow believers by carefully applying the light of biblical revelation to their “lived theology.”
Chan models this kind of careful theological reflection himself. The result is a robust discussion of some significant theological topics, many of them vitally important within Western contexts as well. He explores at some length, for example, the relevance of Asia’s honor-and-shame culture for an evangelicalism that has typically concentrated primarily on the concepts of sin and guilt. To be sure, the Bible calls us guilty sinners who have rebelled against our Creator. But the disobedience of our first parents in the Garden was also an affront to God’s honor, resulting in their hiding in shame from their Lord. To ignore these honor-and-shame themes is to miss much of what the Bible tells us about our shared humanity.
Chan also addresses the topic of the veneration of ancestors, a subject seldom discussed among Western evangelicals. For Christians struggling to understand whether coming to faith can shed light on the state of their ancestors’ souls, this is a crucial concern. Chan’s analyses of the doctrine of purgatory and Christ’s “descent into hell” are provocative—and, I think (having been asked anxious questions about the fate of ancestors by recent converts in China), deserving of further exploration.
There are times in Chan’s discussions, of course, when some readers won’t be fully satisfied. (I personally am not completely happy, for example, with Chan’s insistence that we have to choose in favor of Karl Barth’s way of avoiding cultural “accommodation” over Paul Tillich’s “correlational” methodology. On a purely theological level, of course, Barth’s substantive theology is the clear winner over Tillich’s liberalism. But in the search for helpful ways to root biblical truth in different cultures, many of us will prefer certain elements in Tillich’s approach to the stern “Nein!” that Barth often uttered on such questions.)
Also, those of us who support an egalitarian understanding of gender relations will certainly have some problems. Chan insists that the “hierarchy” of church and family patterns in Asian cultures fits the biblical pattern better than a strong emphasis on gender equality. Of course, to the degree that we egalitarians can simply be seen as imposing “Western” biases on other cultures, we should pursue this conversation. But it’s also necessary to look at the diversity within Asia itself. Through the difficult years of China’s Cultural Revolution, for example, many rural churches survived under the gifted preaching and teaching of “Bible ladies.” That pattern of strong women’s leadership in church and family persists as an important reality in grassroots Chinese Christianity.
That many readers will want to keep the arguments going on this or that issue speaks well for this book. I came away with new topics to wrestle with in my own theological reflections. Chan is a wise evangelical thinker who points to spiritual concerns that require creative engagement not only with traditional Asian religions, but also with Catholic and Orthodox insights that can enrich our evangelical efforts, especially in drawing on the spiritual strengths of grassroots Pentecostalism.
Grassroots Asian Theology informs us that the Lord is doing some wonderful things in local communities in Asia. But Chan does more than inform. He also teaches some important lessons from Asian Christians about how to faithfully serve the cause of the gospel in our own cultural contexts.
Richard J. Mouw is the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the co-author, with Douglas Sweeney, of The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology (Baker Academic).