Chinese Theology

Text and Context

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Chloë Starr
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , December
     2016.
     392 pages.
     $50.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300204216.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

No texts stand independent and untouched by the historical, cultural, and social contexts in which they are written. In her most recent work, Chloe Starr applies this axiom to her investigation of Chinese Christian theology. Starr articulates a twofold goal: “First, to present a general history or overview of Chinese theology through background chapters and studies of individual texts, and second, to offer the argument that Chinese theology cannot truly be understood without a sense of Chinese literary form and of the social meaning of the text” (1). Starr accomplishes both goals in a masterful balancing act, navigating between broad historical assessments of context and focused analysis of key figures and their particular texts.

Starr provides readers a clear and compelling sketch of Chinese Christianity’s modern history in four periods: the Republican era (chapter 2, 1920s and 30s), the early People’s Republic (chapter 6, 1950s and 60s), the reform period (chapter 8, 1980s and 90s), and the contemporary context of the past decade (chapter 10). Within each period, Starr highlights specific figures and texts as representative of the theological concerns of their time. The theologies of Zhao Zichen (chapter 3), Xu Zongze (chapter 4), and Wu Leichuan (chapter 5) all grapple with questions of cultural heritage and self-determination as China’s fragile new republic sought to remake itself in the face of colonial powers. For these Republican era Christians, it was imperative that Jesus Christ be disassociated with the Western powers that dominated them. Ding Guangxun’s theology (chapter 7) is framed by questions of church and state during Communist rule when a strong centralized government with an expansive social vision claimed authority over ecclesial governance. How ought the church’s mission relate to that of the state? Yang Huilin’s interdisciplinary “Chinese scriptural reasoning” (chapter 9) is colored by reform-era China’s reopening to the world, grounded by a new season of connection and inquiry. Altogether, Starr skillfully shows how each historical period’s social and cultural context impacts the ways these Chinese Christians and scholars made sense of their faith and identity as both Chinese and Christian.

Starr’s focus is not simply on the messages of Chinese theology, but also on the literary genres that communicate it. Her training as a scholar of Chinese literature puts her in a position uniquely suited for such analysis, equipped with skills few traditionally trained theologians can claim. Beginning with the work of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and other early Chinese Catholic documents, Starr introduces the complex questions that accompany cultural translation. How should theological concepts be translated when every word and genre is negotiated within a complex web of meanings and forms? This dynamic is then carefully applied to a wide range of Chinese theological texts. For example, Zhao Zichen’s fictional biography of Jesus’s life incorporates Confucian and Buddhist phrasing as well as geographic motifs common to forms of Chinese travelogues. All of this gives Zhao’s account a subtle yet unmistakably Chinese character. The styles of writing used by Xu Zongze in his personal jottings utilize a different vocabulary and style than his public work, expressing varying shades of theological understanding rooted in Xu’s use of language. Even Yang Huilin’s contemporary scholarship on the relationship between language and meaning in Chinese Christianity echoes the pragmatism of the Chinese philosophical traditions, often unconcerned with systematic portrayals and authoritative arguments. Starr’s analyses convincingly portray the diverse ways by which each writer’s experiences of social changes and cultural memory shape and are shaped by the very mediums in which they are written.  

Starr’s text succeeds both as a nuanced introduction to Chinese theology’s modern historical developments and a much needed warning against writing/reading theological works without context. Its blend of historical survey and literary analysis of key writings effectively thickens our understandings of the intimate relationship between historical experiences and theological expressions. Starr thus reminds us that works of theology are ultimately always tied to questions of hermeneutics, a constant process of negotiation between our lived experiences and the textual traditions we inherit. Perhaps the most pressing implication of Starr’s work is this: that there is no theology that can be written without taking into account the many ways in which a culture writes. This posture brings into range the very question of what ought to constitute theological writing: If all writing is particular, does that mean all theology is as well?

It is along this line of thought that I voice my only critique. With the exception of Wang Mingdao, whom Starr highlights as one of Ding Guangxun’s key interlocutors, the presence of other well-known indigenous Christian voices such as Ni Tuosheng (Watchmen Nee) and Song Shangjie (John Sung) are noticeably absent. Starr claims these figures are skipped over because their theologies express a spirituality that tends to ignore social and cultural concerns (4-5). While there may be some truth to this assertion, these grassroots figures nonetheless lived and wrote in Chinese to Chinese audiences. Surely their texts are also influenced by Chinese modes of communication, grounded in the same social and cultural changes of the long twentieth century. Contextualizing the literary forms these evangelical Chinese Christians used would only strengthen Starr’s argument, challenging perceptions of their work as a timeless gospel unadulterated by the concerns of culture and politics.

Overall, Starr’s text is a masterful introduction to the important relationship between text and context in the shaping of indigenous theologies and comes highly recommended for readers seeking to build a greater sense of diversity and context in their knowledge of Chinese Christianity. For scholars of theology or world Christianity, the book provides concrete case studies of theological inculturation forged by varying social, political, and cultural standpoints. For students of Chinese history and/or literature, the role these Chinese theologies play in current discourses on culture, nationalism, and philosophy can open up new vistas to explore. There are few volumes that introduce so wide a range of prominent Chinese Christian thinkers in such a lucid yet digestible way.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Easten Law is a doctoral student in theological and religious studies at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chloë Starr is associate professor of Asian Christianity and theology at Yale University Divinity School. She is the author of Red-Light Novels of the Late Qing and the coeditor of The Quest for Gentility in China. She lives in New Haven, CT.

Keywords: 

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