- Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China
Lian Xi appeared in China Review International when his first book, The Conversion of Missionaries, Liberalism in Protestant Missions, 1907-1932 (University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) was reviewed and published in fall 1998. His research on the Christian missionary movement of the early twentieth century revealed that many missionaries themselves were converted by their experience in China—not to Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism, but toward a less dogmatic, more cosmopolitan view of Christianity that is open to the values and religious insights found in other traditions.
Of the Christian missionaries liberalized by the China social and religious ethos, none is more famous than Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973), whose illustrious life can be representative of two others about whom Lian Xi wrote. Born in China of religiously conservative Southern Presbyterian missionary parents Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, despite her fundamentalist upbringing, grew up to be a sensitive writer, empathetic advocate of the disabled, generous philanthropist, lover of several different men at different times, untiring champion of orphans, and Nobel laureate. Millions in the West were introduced to China's peasantry through her novel The Good Earth (New York: John Day, 1931). Her life and work in China had enabled her to develop "a more balance and mature estimate of Chinese society. While she would remain critical of rural oppression, especially the treatment of peasant women, her essays and fiction would often celebrate the strength and simple integrity of farming families. Never again, in any case, would she talk about 'sin' or 'heathen' in her descriptions of [End Page 144] Chinese life. She would find her own voice, which would differ at almost every point from her father's theological polemics."1
In Redeemed by Fire, Lian shifts his focus to popular Christianity within China and how it continues to challenge the established churches on the contemporary scene. Lian Xi speaks and writes as though having had firsthand experience with popular religions in China. When asked about his own religious background in an e-mail, he told me that his father "did associate with Little Flock," one of the popular religions of his research. Lian Xi gives his comprehensive accounts of millennarian sects such as the True Jesus Church and Jesus Family. These sects emphasize the end of the world and the imminent return of Jesus as well as their own rapture over being among the saved elites. When I suggested to Lian Xi that his meticulous account of popular sects of Christianity in China nevertheless shows them to be authentic (however mistaken their views) in faith commitment, his answer (in another e-mail) is that he himself views them negatively, as essentially "marginalized and he wreck who are more drawn to apocalyptic tendencies."
Though viewed as bizarre and an aberration of Christian faith (and even as heretical in the churches of the China Christian Council today, especially by its theologically trained clergy), these so-called sects, nevertheless, have their roots in traditional Christianity. Theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School reminds us that "Christianity [itself] began as an eschatological sect," as noted by Lian (p. 233). The mainline churches are "ectacsy deficit" (p. 9) in that they seem to regard exuberant excesses such as trances, visions, shouting, glossalalia (speaking in tongues), fainting, or believing in an eventual rapture—where the faithful are rewarded with paradise while unbelievers are damned to hell—as below their dignity as intelligent Christians. The author's thorough accounts of these sects, however, seem to have uncovered (perhaps inadvertently) their own authenticity of faith, despite inappropriate sexual relations and possible misappropriation of funds. All imperfect human institutions, including those of mainline Christianity, are subject to unacceptable behaviors, including the sex scandals that plague the Roman Catholic Church in our time.
How these Christian sects arise depends on their assumptions (much shared with popular beliefs), social locations, the psyche of their adherents, and whether...