Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Asian Perspectives of Jesus

It was during his bible study course on Corinthians that we came upon the idea and the joys of learning together as a community. His life taught me much about dedication, passion for mission and the Word in the Malaysian context. Brother O, another friend of Agora, avid Bible student and Anglican evangelist/mentor has just decided to blog at Global South:

"because the center of Christianity is moving from the Western world, which is normally located in the Northern Hemisphere, to the Southern Hemisphere. Christianity is booming in the Global South (Latin America, Africa, and Asia), but declining rapidly in the West.

What would this mean for us, Asians in particular, who are believers in the Resurrected Savior? What are the long-term implications for the Asian churches?"

So it seems appropriate that I share the following GCF i-Commentary on:
Asian Perspectives of Jesus
By Tan Kang San

"Who do people say I am?... Who do you say I am?" (Mark 8:27, 29)

"For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread…" (1 Cor. 11:23)

The Problem of an Alien Jesus in Asia

Jesus came from Asia. Hypothetically, Jesus is more Asian than Western in outlook and cultural values. But Christianity was brought to Asia by Western missionaries. Did Western missionaries faithfully deliver the biblical, Jewish Jesus to the people in Asia or did they betray Jesus and his message by presenting a Western Christ? Today, Asian churches are actively sending out missionaries. How can missionaries, from Asia and the West, preach a faithful and biblical portrait of Jesus who is true to his Jewish roots and dynamically related to the hearts and minds of local peoples?

Missionaries seek to faithfully transmit the life and message of the historical Jesus found in the Bible. However, in the process of gospel transmission, there is always a danger of foreign cultural additions that Jesus became portrayed as an Englishman or Christianity is seen as a Western religion. Possibly a "betrayal" is
too strong a word because most missionaries came to Asia to bring the gospel with deep love for Christ. Asian Christians are grateful to God for the sacrifices of our Western Christians. However, whenever Western traditions and accretions are added, then inadvertently, the portrait of the original Jesus of the Bible was blurred. This critique of cultural additions to Christ is not a new issue, but one
made since the spread of Protestant missionary work. For example, Keshub Chunder Sen, an Indian religious reformer observed:

"It seems that the Christ that has come to us is an Englishman, with English manners and customs about him… Is not Christ's native land nearer to India than England? Are not Jesus and his apostles and his immediate followers more akin to Indian nationality than Englishmen?

Why should we then, travel to a distant country like England, in order to gather truths which are to be found much nearer our homes? Go to the rising sun of the East, not to the setting sun of the West, if you wish to see Christ, in the plenitude of his glory."

Keshub Chunder Sen (1838-1884)

Today, Christianity's image as a "foreign religion" may be perpetuated through missionaries from Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong or the Philippines. History repeats itself when these Asian missionaries imposed a Jesus alien to local cultures. Enthusiastic Asian churches are adopting national workers and sending short term
workers without adequate cultural understanding of local beliefs.

Leadership of these mission works tend to be in the hands of pastors of supporting churches rather than local missionaries living in the midst of non-Christian cultures. Because these mega-churches paid salaries of national workers, newly formed churches are perpetually dependent on foreign funding. With money and power, the identities of new mission stations are inseparably linked with foreign forms of
denominations, leadership styles, and church structures which project an alien Jesus to the non-Christian communities in Asia.

Potential Images of Jesus from Asia

Speaking of Western theologies, Andrew Walls observed that "Our (Western) existing theologies of church and state were carved out of the experience of Western Christendom, and were never meant to deal with anything as complicated as the networks of political and economic structures that will characterize the twenty first century" (Walls 2002: 113). Walls went on to argue that African and Asian
Christianity have more experiences than most developed countries in dealing with the issues of suffering, ethnic identities and rivalry, religious identities, problems of corruption, power struggles, principalities and spirit worship. If Asian churches are to mature into an agent of transformation in society, then Asian Christian thinkers need to understand and engage deeply with the real issues of
Asian societies. One positive hope for change must be the release of Jesus Christ from Western captivity and images. Missionaries do this by encouraging local Christians to see Christ related dynamically to local cultures. Those who are educated in the West need to be re-trained to see Christ through Japanese eyes, Chinese eyes, Filipino eyes and Indonesian eyes.

With the growth of Christianity in Asia, and the decline of Christianity in the West, Asian Christians stand at an interpretive cross road- whether to continue to rely on Western images of Jesus or to develop new ways of seeing the Asian face of Jesus found in the bible. All metaphors about Jesus must be rooted in the biblical
texts. However, our readings of the bible need to be dynamically related to the diverse contexts of Asia. Just as the early church needed four interpreters of Jesus stories in the gospels, so the Asian church need to see Jesus walking along the Indonesian villagers of Tsunami or the Jesus as a friend of the poor in the slums of Manila or Bangkok. Chinese societies need to be introduced to Jesus as the Tao of Wisdom and the Teacher greater than Confucius. To a great extent, Chinese Christians have not fully explored the different ways in which Jesus can be both "pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2).

In Search of an Asian Jesus

How can we facilitate the growth of an Asian face of Jesus? First, new missionaries need to be minimally self-critical of themselves and their own religious traditions. The discipline needed for self-critiques is particularly difficult if missionaries work within mono-cultural or mono-tradition groups. For example, if all the missionaries are Southern Baptist from Texas or Anglicans from Singapore, then these mission groups need to work very hard in discerning whether their forms of Christianity are appropriate in a new mission field. This may not be an easy task because most of us are not always conscious that our cherished religious heritages are culturally conditioned. Sometimes we forget our own prejudices and
are not aware of our ignorance of those positive elements in other cultures.

If the first task dealt with the missionary's own cultural blindness, the second task is to deal with non-Christian's contributions to the problem of an alien Jesus. Today, "Who do people say that I am?" is still a valid starting question for new missionaries. Whenever Christian workers enter into Muslim or Buddhist cultures, they are not preaching Jesus into empty minds. Instead, they will encounter existing portraits of Jesus commonly held by local peoples. Some of these portraits are cultural misunderstandings (Jesus is a Westerner), while others derived from non-Christian teachings or scriptures (Jesus as a mere prophet in the Quran). Jesus Christ of the Bible must take over these non-Christian beliefs and
misunderstandings. Therefore, missionaries need to learn how to address these socio-religious misunderstandings of who Jesus is.

The third task in the process of discovering an Asian Jesus is seeking cultural bridges that connect the relevance of Jesus Christ to existing indigenous beliefs.

For example, Gani Winoyo, developed a Javanese Face of Jesus based on a popular eschatological messianic Javanese figure of Ratu Adil (1999: 65-79). Winoyo researched and discovered deep seated beliefs within Javanese worldviews of "Ratu
Adil," who will be the deliverer, and "harmonizer" of society. He then appropriated the Jesus of the Bible as someone who is able to bring deliverance, Hope and reconciliation in Javanese society. To do this job well, missionaries must view their changed roles from a "Pearl Seller to Treasure Gatherer."

Vincent Donovan, in his work among the Masai people in Tanzania argued that "The task of the missionary is to present the gospel, the task of the people is to express the gospel and its meaning in their own language and thought forms….The field of culture is theirs and ours is the gospel." (Donovan, 1995)

Last but not least, these Asian perspectives of Jesus need to be subjected to the test of scriptures, and found not contradictory to historical images of Jesus accepted in other Christian communities. The Asian Jesus cannot be so inculturated to Asian soils that he is unrecognizable from the Jesus found in the Bible or apostolic Christology.

A Christological Question: Who do you say I am?

Our search for an Asian face of Jesus is ultimately an issue of the Lordship of Christ. The issue is not just what non-Christians think of Jesus- "who do people say I am"; but who is Jesus to Asian Christians- "who do you say I am?" This Christological question penetrates into the depth of Christian worship and discipleship where one's loyalty to Christ is not confined to safe religious boundaries. Contextually, our answers to the question of who Jesus is cannot be completely disconnected from the questions about Jesus commonly held by our Muslim and Buddhist neighbors. Likewise, the Christian portraits of Jesus should emerge from the sufferings and heart struggles of Asia rather than a Christology developed in 17th Century Medieval Cathedral. Radical discipleships must result in Christ penetrating every aspect of socio-economic and political world of Asia. The Apostle Paul has this multiple dimensions of Christ's Lordship when he proclaimed that "Jesus Christ is the first born of all creation; for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities- all things were created through Him and for Him" (Col. 1:15-16).

References Cited

Donovan, Vincent. 1995. Christianity Rediscovered. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Walls, Andrew F. 2002. The Cross Cultural Process in Christian History. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Winoyo, Gani. 1999. "Ratu Adil: a Javanese Face of Jesus." Journal of Asian Mission 1/pgs. 65-79.

Image credit to Asian Christian Art


WP How said...

We are familiar with Aslan, the lion of Narnia, representing the figure of Christ. Can Chinese Christians appropriate the image of the Chinese Lion we see during the Lunar New Year to represent Christ? What would it take for Christians to recast the Chinese lion into the Lion of Judah? The Lion who battles the Dragon and overcomes it! And could the entire story be presented in classical Chinese theatre?

FaithC said...

I'm curious. I hear a lot of people saying that lion/dragon/small dragon(??) dances are demonic. Err... how so?

ppl say 'dragons' per se are demonic....

So they will cut out any picture of dragons in their magazines, books, etc and avoid any vase, jewelry, clothe that carry a dragon's picture too....

fergus said...

btw, my muslim source tells me that there are plans in their ranks to establish a lion dance tradition among muslim chinese.

very interesting.

ok... i've done some research. there are different hierarchies to the different kinds of lion/dragon dances.

at the top of the hierarchy is the flat-faced green fella i mentioned. that's supposed to be only done by the top sifus.

then there's dragon dance with the poles, then a phoenix dance where the head moves left and right (pointy head, cindy are you talking about this?).

then this is followed up by the northern lion (the wooly one i mentioned) and lastly the southern lion (the common ones).

all that stuff is here.

the roots largely go back to the romance of three kingdoms (out of whom at least one hero confirm has become a chinese folk diety), and kung fu, which is all violent and unchristian anyway. right? ahem...

interestingly enough, the scariest of them all - the green-faced lion - has the least origins in chinese spirituality. it's supposed to represent the manchus, hence the frightening face. and they used to dance it during the manchurian occupation, ending in a complete massacre of the lion (i doubt the dancers), as a sign of overthrowing the manchus. of course, now it's a rare treat (if a treat at all) to see one of these... still, i've seen it on no less than two occassions. and the writer of the article above hadn't even seen it before. hooray.