David Aikman: Jesus in Beijing

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Interview of David Aikman by Dick Staub

Well welcome everybody. You know, our next guest is a respected journalist and former Beijing Bureau Chief for Time magazine. His most recent book is a stunning look at how Christianity is transforming China and how that could change the global balance of power.

Q. I’m referring to David Aikman. And his book is Jesus in Beijing, published by Regnery. David, thank you for joining us today.
A. Thank you for having me on the program.

Q. You know, the first thought that comes to mind when I-when I read the introduction to this book and the early chapters is, My, how things have changed. I mean, you started your interest in this subject when you were a bureau chief in a China that was very closed, was not accessible. Now we’ve got a book with photos, stories, and a lot more access.
A. Right.

Q. Talk about how things have changed so dramatically since you were a bureau chief.
A. Well, when I was in China in the 1980’s it was just beginning to open up. I mean, the decisions by Deng Xiaoping in 1978/79 began to open China right after their sort of hibernation during the cultural revolution. But it basically has taken two decades for the changes to shake down through society and to open every aspect of Chinese society to a much greater degree. Now, you still have very tight restrictions on religion and you still have persecution there of course. But it’s possible to get around China, to go to places without asking permission from the Foreign Ministry and so on, and that was not the case two decades ago.

Q. You know, there is a growing self-awareness within China of the importance of religion in understanding the West and even in understanding itself. You start with a remarkable lecture that was delivered to some tourists in which someone who was not a member of the religious right nevertheless gives credit to Christianity for the way the West has shaped its society.
A. Right. Well, and of course, China isn’t influenced by the polarity of our own society, and China has had in force secularization for five decades.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. So to-to break out of the sort of cliches about religion being, you know, okay with the people and retrogressive and reactionary, et cetera, is to them a leap of intellectual adventure. Whereas in our own society we are still dealing with the reaction against the religious presence that you can see everywhere in the media.

Q. Yeah. You talk about the strategic placement of Christians. Talk about some of the places that you find Christians that are really quite important when we think about what’s happening in China.
A. Well, they’re in the Foreign Service. They’re in the Academy of Social Sciences, which is a major sort of think-tank institution. They are within the Party, secretly of course. They are within ministries. They are very prominent in many universities. They are in areas of culture like symphony orchestras, popular music. I mean, they’re just showing up in many parts of society where you wouldn’t have expected to find Christians.

Q. You describe this as an opportune time for Christianity in China. But what are some of the dynamics that have meant that right now is a time where there can be some tremendous growth and opportunities for growth of the Church in China?
A. Well, I think probably the most dramatic growth may be over. I would say that occurred in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ80s and ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s. Throughout the 1980s and then in the early ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s. Christianity is still growing a lot. I think the point is that there is a spiritual vacuum in China that for quite a long time nobody has believed in Marxism-Leninism, and people want to know, well, what’s life all about? I mean, is it just a question of getting rich and then you’ve got the problems of corruption? And the sort of official Marxism ethical system isn’t adequate to deal with that. So people are open for explanations of life and a reality that makes sense of what they have to deal with on a daily basis.

Q. You also describe a movement of what are referred to as “cultural Christians,” Christians that are developing a kind of Chinese Christian worldview, and how that could have really important impact in years to come as China becomes a global superpower, which they expect to do within a couple of decades actually.
A. Right. Well, the cultural Christians are nominally very interesting because what it means is a person who accepts the ethical system of Christianity may accept basic gospel truth, but doesn’t necessarily belong to a church, is not part of any organized Christian group, and yet is interested in all of the manifestations of Christian cultural and intellectual life for the last 2,000 years. And they’re really quite influential.

Q. And why would they not want to be part of a church?
A. Well, for a couple of reasons. One is, it’s still risky. That is, although you can go to church if you are a person of some responsibility and position, it could be harmful to your career. The other is, they don’t think the church in China has grasped the intellectual dimensions that Christianity faces in a way that it should. And so they’re sort of cut off from normal Christian life and community.

Q. Well, and for people that understand that, people in the West to understand that, we have to start exploring the China Christian Council, the Three Self Church Movement, and House Church Movement, which are very different from each other. And I think what you’re saying is in a certain sense the cultural Christian really doesn’t connect well to either of them.
A. Well, cultural Christians don’t connect well with the official Protestant group, which is the Three Self Patriotic Movement, because that group is very much under the control of the Religious Affairs Bureau, which is an expression of the Party and the Party’s view of religion. Nor do cultural Christians connect very much with most of the House Church Christians because the House Church Christians, on the whole, tend to be in the countryside. They tend to be not very well educated, they don’t really understand the issues that the cultural Christians consider in understanding China and, in fact, in understanding life. So I’d say that it’ll be quite awhile before the churches catch up with where these cultural Christians are.

Q. Do these cultural Christians self-identify in such a way that they could actually become kind of a Third Stream Church? A different kind of church?
A. Well yes, some people think that may happen. They think that the cultural Christians may sort of reinvent church, at least in the Chinese context. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that myself, but it’s interesting. One of the most prominent cultural Christians in China, Liu Xiaofeng, is frequently mentioned by students in sort of campus polls across China as the Chinese intellectual they most admire.

Q. Really. Interesting.
A. And he’s a guy who has written very searching books about life, about the Christian gospel, about what truth is. And-and this is very attractive to a group in the young, you know, to part of the younger generation.

I’ll tell you what. We’ll pick up there when we come back with David Aikman. Don’t go away.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. And my guest this afternoon is David Aikman. His book is Jesus in Beijing, published by Regnery.

Q. One of the things I always appreciate about David is he speaks in the measured terms of a journalist and doesn’t get caught up in the hyperbole that, frankly, is quite easy to find language for when you look at a place like China because it’s¢â‚¬¦ My own impression of China is that everything is true and nothing is true. When you talk to Westerners about Chinese Christianity, most of them have just a little piece of the pie and through that they try to translate all of-all of China. And China is obviously immense geographically, but also there’s a tremendous diversity that has emerged within the Christian movement. Now, for people that don’t know, David, let’s talk just a bit about the Three Self Church. And first of all, what kind of¢â‚¬¦ How do we go about getting a number for the number of Christians in China when you combine Chinese Christian Council, the House Church Movement, the cultural Christians? What-what-what estimates come to mind?
A. Well, of course you’re quite right to ask that question. It is, in fact, an estimate, but through various criteria to go on. But to answer your first question, because that will help explain the second, the Three Self Patriotic Movement is a sort of umbrella organization for Protestant churches in China, which was set up in the 1950s to enable the Communist Party, through Protestant clergy, to control Protestant Christianity. And it has, in many ways, sort of effected the theology for a long time. In a Three Self church, if you were a pastor, even if you were an evangelical, and many of them are, you were not allowed to preach on the book of Daniel, you weren’t allowed to preach on Genesis, you weren’t allowed to speak about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Anyway, the Three Self churches claim these are the churches that are open and visible and operating on a weekly basis on Sunday. They claim about 15 to 20 million people. And that’s probably a fairly accurate assessment of church membership or church-going throughout China. The Christians in the House Church, or what is sometimes called the Unregistered Christian Communities ¢€œ unregistered because they don’t want to have any connection with government, they don’t want to register the Three Self, considering the Three Self is really too visible ¢€œ they are reckoned to be about three times as large as the Three Self Christians. So let’s suppose you’ve got 15 million Protestant Christians attached to the Three Self. It’s estimated that there may be as many as 45 million who attend House churches. So you were at about 50 million, and then maybe add on another 12 for the Catholics. So we’re talking 70 to 80 million people here.

Q. Which is amazing.
A. It is amazing when you consider, Dick, that in 1949 there were only 3 million Catholics and fewer than one million Protestants.

Q. Yeah.
A. Whereas the population today of 1.3 million is only about two-and-a-half times as big as that.

Q. Yeah. What’s interesting about the comment you just made is you often hear people say that the best thing that ever happened to China was the withdrawal of Western missionaries. And yet one of the nice things about your book, Jesus in Beijing, is that you set it in the context of the history of Christianity in China which pays proper respect to the Nestorians, the Jesuits, the Hudson Taylors. There’s been a lot of groundbreaking and seed planting over the centuries that provided a context in which this-this House Church Movement, in particular, has seen rapid and explosive growth.
A. Absolutely true. I mean, you can’t¢â‚¬¦ The current Christian flourishing in China didn’t take place in a vacuum. Of course in many ways it took place through the cold or the suffering, but certainly as a result of the seeds carefully planted by many generations of previous Christian groups.

Q. When we-when we think about the-the-the attitude of the House Church towards the Three Self Church, how would you describe that-that-that attitude and relationship, and explain why they feel the way they do about the Three Self Church?
A. Well, the leaders of the House churches say the only head of our church is Jesus Christ.

Q. Yeah.
A. If we register, if we join the Three Self, which we’re constantly being asked to do, we have to have a pastor appointed for us by the China Christian Council, or the Three Self Patriotic Movement. And furthermore, he is approved by the Religious Affairs Bureau, which is an organization subordinate to the Chinese government to the Communist Party, whose leader was an atheist.

Q. Yeah. Now, they’re referring to¢â‚¬¦
A. Wenzhou.

Q. Yeah. And so their attitude is that-that the Three Self Church is just kind of a puppet in submission to the government. But in your book you get a broader flavor. You get the idea that there are seminary graduates who are-who are fairly evangelical and orthodoxed in their theology, that within the Three Self Movement most people would enter a worship service and feel they were in a-in the presence of an evangelical expression. How-how do we, as Westerners, understand the difference in perspective of the House Church towards the Three Self Church. And what is, in fact, in place in the Three Self Church?
A. Well, the Three Self Church is, as you say, often quite evangelical. And I think it’s probably true that the majority of the pastors are evangelical. But the-the leadership of the Three Self is trying to ram down the throats of everybody a sort of theology which is warmed-over 1950s social gospel liberalism.

Q. Really.
A. Yeah. So there’s a lot of resentment in that. And of course the House churches don’t want anything to do with that.

Q. Yeah.
A. But nevertheless the House churches and the Three Self pastors do have quite good relationships at the grass roots. Theologically, you would find the House churches more evangelical and, in fact, in most cases more charismatic.

Q. Yeah.
A. Whereas you wouldn’t find any Three Self Church which was charismatic.

Q. Yeah. It is interesting, though, you have this wonderful, in the Appendix, the confession of faith ¢€œ
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œ which was an attempt to come to a common doctrine among the House Church Movements. And to have a really nice way of walking a fine line about, for instance, the gift of tongues, which they say we will not, you know, we do not believe that they have ceased, but we also do not believe they’re the only evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit. So for all of what sometimes is described as our lack of sophistication, they actually seem to be for the most part coming to a fairly orthodox theology.
A. Well, I think they’re very orthodox and they’re very balanced.

Q. Yeah.
A. I mean, I think the richness of China’s church is that it has been much influenced by some outstanding reformed evangelical teachers and leaders. One of them died recently. In fact, one of the sort of heroes of the foreigners who’ve influenced China in recent years in my book, Reverend Jonathan Chao, sadly died a few weeks ago.

Q. Oh my.
A. So¢â‚¬¦ And he was outstanding as a sort of theologian and as a teacher of the basis to reform Protestant Christian doctrine. At the same time you get people like Dennis Balcombe, who profoundly influenced much of the House Church in learning how to liven up worship, and how to be open to the Holy Spirit’s movements and the gifts of the Spirit. So you’ve got a rich coming together of different traditions of the evangelical Protestant community.

I’ll tell you what. We’ve got to take a break. We’ll be back with more of David Aikman right after this.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub. We’re visiting with Dave Aikman. His new book is Jesus in Beijing, and it’s published by Regnery.

Q. We’ve been talking about the-the Three Self Church and the House Church Movement. And one of the issues that comes up often with Westerners is the contentious issue of whether Chinese Christians can, in fact, get Bibles. And you have this wonderful section in your book on Amity Press and the availability of Bibles, and the fact that they have distributed a lot of Bibles. And yet the House Church still has reasons why they, again, do not want to form a close association with Amity Press which is part of the Three Self Church. Talk about that issue of-of the availability of Bible texts and how Amity Press relates to the House Church Movement.
A. A Chinese who wishes to buy a Bible can usually do so quite easily in any of the official churches in any of the cities in China. I say usually because sometimes they’re out of stock and many times they won’t let you buy more than one at a time. However, you cannot buy Bibles in any ordinary Chinese bookstore, although you can, of course, buy copies of Buddhist scriptures and so on. And so for House Church Communities in remoter parts of China, it’s very difficult for them to make the trek to the nearest city, which may be miles away, and get enough Bibles to satisfy the needs of their community because, as I say, one Christian can go and buy one Bible, maybe two, but he can’t go and buy a dozen.

Q. Yeah. So-so when-when people in the West generalize about China, and they look at the House Church Movement and the Three Self, they usually come down on one side or the other of which is a legitimate expression of the Body of Christ and they come to the same conclusion about Bibles. And you’ve got, you know, the Billy Graham and Son associated with believing that Bibles are available, and-and denominations like the Christian Missionary Alliance that have been involved in Hong Kong and throughout China who are working cooperatively with the Three Self Church. And then you’ve got a whole bunch of para-church ministries that kind of underground, connected to the House Church Movement smuggling Bibles. Can you kind of put a cap on this part of the discussion by helping us in the West understand how we-we might have a clearer view of the right relationship of what’s happening with the Church in China?
A. Well, I would say it’s legitimate to have the relationship through an existing American church with the Three Self. I have no objection to people who provide material or books at seminaries who pay for the printing the Bibles which, of course, many of the Protestant churches in the United States have done. But I’m totally against the view that you shouldn’t have any dealing with the other groups, because they have needs, too. Particularly because they don’t have any places to meet without facing considerable risk often and because they’re not recognized, they can’t simply be a conduit for the importation of books from overseas. And so in effect their teaching materials have to be brought in by friends from overseas ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ who know what their needs are. So I’m against dogmatic identification with either one group or¢â‚¬¦ Certainly identification with China’s Christians in one group at the expense of the other group. I think we have to be able to do both.

Q. When you try to understand House Church and why it’s grown rapidly, you get the sense in your book that you talk about persecution, and you would talk about genuine miraculous work of the Spirit of God. I mean, there’s healings, there’s miracles, you feel like you’re reading the book of Acts when you read some of these stories.
A. That’s absolutely true. You do feel like reading the book of Acts. And I mean it’s¢â‚¬¦ Certainly persecution has played a role in the growth of the Church. I mean, Christianity has flourished. It’s certainly been in many ways as healthy as under persecution because they trimmed a lot of the excesses of life that it’s come by when things were too easy. But it’s also true that for some reason which, you know, only the sovereignty of God can explain, many, many Chinese come into a faith experience of the Christian gospel through some form of miraculous healing, either in their own lives or in the lives of people they know well. And it is very, very striking. You don’t have to spend much time in China to realize that lots and lots of people ¢€œ far more I would say than you would find normally in the United States ¢€œ have had first-hand experience of what seemed like miraculous healing.

Q. Yeah. There’s another aspect of the House Church that was fascinating. And that is the degree to which they are a combination of fairly supportive of the United States, or have a positive attitude towards the West, and also their call to the Islamic world.
A. Yes.

Q. And the fact that they feel the call to be part of what God might do with Muslims.
A. Right. Well, they are¢â‚¬¦ They do tend to be pro-American, obviously, because they know that in America Christians are free and they get a lot of help from the United States churches, so they’re very grateful for that. And also they-they take a view of America as having, having had on the whole, a very good influence all over the world. I mean, which countries are first always to provide emergency aid after earthquakes and volcanoes? It’s always the Americans. So they appreciate that. Now, in the case of the Moslems as a movement in the Chinese churches, particularly the House Churches, it’s called Back to Jerusalem. And essentially this is a sort of nation-wide concept that the destiny of the Chinese church is to complete the great commission insofar as reaching the Moslem world, et cetera.

Q. Wow.
A. And that’s not something we spend a lot of time doing, but they do.

Q. You know, one of the inspirational aspects of your book, Jesus in Beijing, is the stories of, well, the Pathfinders and also the Patriarchs and the Uncles and Aunts, the Chinese, in particular, who have paid the price. And you talk about the Nelson Mandela of Chinese Christianity and the chance that you had to meet him. And the moving departure in which he stood up and sang a hymn with you. What a moment that must have been.
A. Yes. Yeah.

Q. Tell us about that gentleman.
A. He-he¢â‚¬¦ After we had this meeting he stood up at attention, his wife with him, and sang, in English, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Q. And what impact that he made in the Chinese church. Just give us a thumbnail of him.
A. He, first of all, he was a pioneer of independent, non-supervised Christian churches long before the Communists came to power.

Q. Wow.
A. I mean, it’s an irony that the Communist Party in forming the Three Self said they wanted Chinese churches to be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-administering. In other words, they didn’t want missionaries or foreign churches controlling, pulling the strings. Okay, fair enough. Well, he had figured that description in his own evangelical church in Beijing from the 1930s onward.

Q. Yeah.
A. And during World War II when the Japanese occupied North China and Beijing, or Peking as it was called, he refused to have anything to do with them, and he said Christianity is not primarily about politics. When the Communists came through, came to power, they said, Well now, it’s time for you to join the People’s Revolution. He said, I don’t have anything against the government or your regime, but I’m not going to allow you to control what we preach in our church.

I’ll tell you what. We’ll pick up there when we come back with some concluding comments from Dave Aikman. But you can spend more time with him by picking up a copy of his wonderful book, Jesus in Beijing, published by Regnery. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Dave Aikman. His new book is Jesus in Beijing. It’s published by Regnery.

Q. We were just talking about what David refers to as the Nelson Mandela of Chinese Christianity, and a man who understood the Three Self concept of the church prior to the government imposition, and was a very individualistic and Christ-centered and glorifying leader. And finish up the story, David. But I think it would be important to tell folks that there are a lot of stories like this in the book. And the story of China and the growth of the Church in China is absolutely built on people like this.
A. It really is. I mean, Wang Mingdao, whom we’re talking about, was greatly admired by all of China’s Protestant Christians when the Communists came to power. And he steadfastly refused to cooperate. Well then they arrested him and they brainwashed him and basically tortured him. And he broke in 1957 and sort of began to cooperate and everybody was very dismayed. And then he wandered around Beijing, or Peking as ¢€œ well then, it was called Beijing then ¢€œ saying I am Peter, I am Peter, but I am not Judas.

Q. Wow.
A. And he finally, when they came to pushing him and pushing him to cooperate with the authorities he said, No, I made the mistake the first time. I won’t do it. And that’s when they put him into prison, into labor camp for 22 years.

Q. Wow. Oh man. Well folks, I just want to encourage you to read more of these stories. Let’s wrap up with a few comments about China’s Christian future. One of the most kind of strategic forward-looking aspects of the book is the way it talks about a “Christianized China.” You know, not the majority of China, maybe 20 to 30 percent, but could have tremendous impact. And you talk about could this mean a more responsible power in China? Or is there still a concern of emerging menace?
A. Well, I-I make it clear in the book that there’s lots of things that could go wrong in China. You could have a sort of alpha-nationalist reaction against all of the Western contacts just as you did during the Boxer Rebellion in the year 1900. But what I say is that at the present rate of growth in China, it’s possible that within 20 to 30 years, 20 to 30 percent of the Chinese will be Christian, which would take place about the same time China is emerging as a sort of number two superpower in the world. And I made the point that when you have 20 to 30 percent of any country that are Christian believers, and not just nominal Christians but quite serious committed Christians, you find them showing up throughout society in places of influence, including eventually politics. And if that happened, then China as a major power would have the same kind of view of itself and its global responsibility that say Great Britain had in the 19th century and the United States ¢€œ although it certainly made a few mistakes ¢€œ that the United States has honestly tried to pursue in the 20th century and now in the 21st century.

Q. How does the disproportionate size of the church being from rural areas affect that concept?
A. Well that’s beginning to change. You’re beginning to get evangelization of cities. You’ve got already quite a strong presence of Christian professionals. The one area which I don’t think has been reached very effectively by China’s evangelists are what I would call the urban poor ¢€œ

Q. Hm.
A. ¢€œ which is a paradox because when Christianity began it was the urban poor in the cities of the Roman Empire that were reached first. But in China it seems to be last.

Q. Interesting. What about the prospects of democracy? People in the West remember Tiananman Square. They view democracy as both following a Christian movement and also being a political expression of it. How does that fit?
A. Well, you are not going to be able to introduce democracy overnight in a place like China with its history of Communist repression and civil war and revolution. And I think the interesting thing is nobody in China, Christian or anybody else, wants to see an instant switch. They’d like to see a visible evolutionary course. And some people could argue, well, that’s already happening because Chinese are no longer chained to the same job or the same workplace for life by a sort of government-organized bureaucracy that tells them when they can get married and all that sort of stuff. Chinese can travel abroad. They can go to Hong Kong, which is basically a free society still. What I think we’re going to see are assuming the changes in society which will devolve the decision-making process to the point where it’s then acceptable to have political choice and political freedom.

Q. Hm.
A. When that happens I think we can consider it feasible for constitutional democracy to arrive.

Q. We’ve been talking about how Christianity could change China. How might China change the movement of Christianity in the world?
A. Well, there’s an interesting book by a sort of scholar of missions called Philip Jenkins called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, in which he shows that there is a shift in the center of gravity of Christianity from north to south because there are more and more Christians in the southern hemisphere, in South American and in Africa, and increasingly large numbers in Asia than you find in the traditional seats of the Christian presence, namely Europe and North America. Now, if that’s happening then, and if China is going to be emerging as a country with perhaps the largest number of Christians anywhere in the world, you can be quite sure that China’s Christian presence is going to play an influence in the development of global Christianity.

Q. You know, you’re not only a wonderful journalist and a man who has spent a lot of time in China, but you’re also a person of faith. And when I’m reading this book and when I’m thinking about the-the dynamics of China and the diversity of it and the strategic importance of and-and the potential for good or ill that China has, how does what you know about China affect the way you pray about China and the way you pray about the people and Christians in China?
A. Well of course, if you’ve met people who are Christians in China many of them have been arrested several times, many of them have been arrested since I first met them. You know what they go through, you know what their challenges are. You know the quality of the spiritual life that is born in suffering and that has an effect on you.

Q. Yeah. It does and it, in a certain sense, calls us into a greater accountability as a Westerner. I mean, is it difficult for you to transition back into the United States after you’ve spent time with those Christians and then you see kind of the state of Christianity in America?
A. Well yes, in a sense it is. I mean, everybody who’s been with Christians in the Third World experiences culture shock. You know, sitting in a church with comfortable pews and, you know, the church having to compete with this social event or that social event. And on the whole I think Americans have not been very diligent about prayer, they’re not necessarily very diligent about ¢€œ well, some are ¢€œ but I think there’s a flabbiness, sort of muscular vigor in American Christianity which you don’t see in the Third World. And you certainly don’t see in China.

Folks, we’ve been visiting with Dave Aikman and I know you’ve enjoyed it. You can spend more time with him by picking up a copy of his latest book, Jesus in Beijing, published by Regnery. Available at your local bookstores or online. Again, Dave Aikman, thanks for being with us. The book is Jesus in Beijing. We’ll be right back.

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