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Reviewed by:
  • Cross Culture and Faith: The Life and Work of James Mellon Menzies
  • David Curtis Wright
Linfu Dong . Cross Culture and Faith: The Life and Work of James Mellon Menzies. University of Toronto Press 2005. viii, 329. $65.00

This is a painstakingly, lovingly executed biography of James Mellon Menzies (1885–1957), a gifted and intense Canadian missionary and accomplished scholar whose religious imagination was inspired by a singular conviction: that God had personally led him to the Ruins of Yin in China and willed him to study and collect the 'oracle bones' found there, or the mysterious engraved and cracked bones (mostly the shoulder blades of cattle or tortoise shells) used during Shang times (ca. 1600–1056 BCE) as part of a divinatory cult for communicating with the supernatural realm. On the oracle bones were engraved some of the most ancient Chinese writing in existence. [End Page 332]

Menzies was convinced that the deity Shangdi named on many of the carefully preserved and buried Shang oracle bones could, at least conceptually, be equated with the one true God. For him this was tremendously exciting because it meant that Christianity could be indigenized in China. If the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could be shown from the most ancient of Chinese documents to be the God of the Chinese as well, he reasoned, then skeptics such as Hu Shi and Feng Youlan, who argued that the Chinese historically have been a philosophical rather than a religious people, would be proven wrong and the cause of the Christian gospel in China would be greatly advanced, although neither Menzies nor his modern Chinese biographer ever bothered to elaborate much on the specific particulars of exactly how and why this would happen.

The first hundred pages cover Menzies' youth in rural Ontario, his Christian faith, his arrival in China in 1910 on the eve of the revolution that overthrew China's last dynasty, Qing (1644–1912), and an interim period of military service in France from 1917 to 1920 with a group of non-combatant Chinese labourers sent to Europe to aid the Allied cause during and after the First World War. China's revolutions, upheavals, and wars rumble in the background (and sometimes the foreground) of Menzies' life in China, but not until page 109 do we get to the meat, or rather the bones, of the book.

The announcement that Menzies had collected 50, 000 oracle-bone fragments by 1927 comes suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, and so does the account of how he felt God had led him to the Ruins of Yin in 1914 and his publication of a book on the oracle bones in 1917.

Where did Menzies' ideas about the oracle bones come from? As Dong indicates at least twice, the equation of Shangdi with God was not original to Menzies; Jesuits in China during the seventeenth century also made the connection. So did Menzies ever credit them? It is quite unlikely that Menzies would have been unaware of the Jesuits' speculations on the Shangdi question, so his seeming silence is baffling. Of course, it would be unreasonable to fault Dong for not answering this question if Menzies was indeed silent on it, but Dong's failure even to consider it is a bit surprising.

Additionally, scholarship by David Mungello and others shows that during the seventeenth century there were robust discussions and debates between Jesuits and Chinese scholar-officials about the appropriateness of the Shangdi/God equation. Menzies' style seems, in fact, Jesuitical in some ways, given his intense dedication, fine scholarship in the service of faith, and belief that Christianity could and should accommodate itself culturally to the Chinese scene.

Menzies is known to Shang specialists as a competent scholar, but Dong's book is very worthwhile because of its sensitivity, insight, and [End Page 333] reminder to us that Menzies was a convinced Christian. His Christian faith informed and coloured all aspects of his life, including his three career roles as collector for the Chinese people (as opposed to collecting for himself and his own profit), archaeologist, and (above all) evangelical theorist who believed firmly that Christianity could and...


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