Thursday, December 29, 2011

David Marshall: "Is Jesus a 'Foreign Religion'?"

A few days ago, I started David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, which was Marshall’s very first book. In terms of readability, there are things that I like so far, there are things that I don’t like so far, and there are many things that I like and dislike simultaneously! True Son of Heaven is definitely more pleasant and easier to read than the last David Marshall book that I went through, Jesus and the Religions of Man, a good book, but one that is quite heavy! At times, though, I feel that True Son of Heaven reads like a tourist manual, and that bores me somewhat. But I have been enjoying the anecdotes, as well as gaining some education in Chinese religion, history, and culture (though I do plan to “fact-check” some stuff, if you will).

I have three items from Chapter 1, “Is Jesus a ‘Foreign Religion’?”:

1. On page 3, Marshall says: “Many Westerners…feel troubled or embarrassed at Christian missions. ‘Does everyone need to believe the same?’ They ask. ‘Why require people to give up their own prophets and wise men to accept a western Savior?’ Some western intellectuals feel the absurdity of preaching European doctrines to China with special intensity. After all, this is the land of Confucius and Lao Zi, the origin of paper, modern kilns, and gun powder, whose grand public projects and remarkable art work defined civilization while great European cities were still rude market towns. What does she need our religion for?”

Of course, Marshall’s aim in this book is to refute that claim by demonstrating that Christianity is consistent with (and even, in a sense, foreshadowed by) Chinese culture. But I appreciated that passage on page 3 because I often feel that Christianity is arrogant to believe that everybody should believe exactly alike.

At the same time, as I have read other books by Marshall (The Truth Behind the New Atheism and Jesus and the Religions of Man), I have come to appreciate how Christianity has promoted morality in other cultures, challenging practices that are repulsive and yet that many in other cultures may have found perfectly acceptable. I think of the practice in India of widows immolating themselves. A friend of mine has done graduate work in multicultural studies, and she has gotten flack because she does not believe that the West should tell Islamic societies to stop female genital mutilation. Granted, she agrees that female genital mutilation is a horrible practice, but she maintains that change must come from within those societies, not imposed from without, which she considers to be a pretty futile enterprise at the outset. I can see her point. But I still admire Christians who go into other cultures and stand up for what’s right, who do not let cultural relativism hold them back from championing the oppressed and the marginalized. But there is some place for cultural relativism, in my opinion. For example, why should we assume that Western capitalism is the right system for every country on the face of the earth?

2. On page 5, Marshall relates to us a message that came from a Voice. The message said: “I didn’t just come with the missionaries. I have been there all along. I made China.”

I appreciated that because I’d like to think that every person on the face of the earth is on God’s radar—-and that God actually loves them rather than desiring to send them to hell. For Marshall, Jesus Christ has been in China all along, preparing the way for that nation to hear and to receive the Gospel. But can the Chinese be saved by embracing the elements of their own culture that overlap with Christianity, without believing in the Gospel that they hear from Christian missionaries?

3. Something that I plan to do as I read this book is to compare what Marshall says about Chinese religion with what I read elsewhere (primarily on the Internet). I will probably use wikipedia quite a bit, primarily to get an alternative perspective. I realize that wikipedia has its limits, but I don’t claim to be writing the final word on the subject of Chinese religion. I’m just exploring. On page 5, Marshall states the following:

“Here, I learned, like the high priest in Jerusalem, one man came once a year to ask pardon for a nation. Whom did he appeal to? ‘Tian:’ a Supreme God identified with Heaven who could not be represented by idols. As in Jerusalem, here, too, the sacrifice of animals would bring Heaven’s mercy. The emperor even brought many of the same creatures to the altar.”

A lot of that checks out with what I read in wikipedia’s article on Shangdi (the Supreme God) and the Temple of Heaven. The article on Shangdi states the following:

“From the earliest eras of Chinese history, Shangdi was officially worshipped through sacrificial rituals. It is the first and foremost important ritual of the state. Shangdi is believed to rule over natural and ancestral spirits, who act as His ministers. Shangdi is thought to be the Supreme Guide of both the natural order and the human order. The ruler of China in every Chinese dynasty would perform annual sacrificial rituals to Shangdi at the great Temple of Heaven in the imperial capital. During the ritual a completely healthy bull would be slaughtered and presented as an animal sacrifice to Shangdi. It is important to note that Shangdi is never represented with either images or idols. Instead, in the center building of the Temple of Heaven, in a structure called the ‘Imperial Vault of Heaven’, a ‘spirit tablet’…inscribed with the name of Shangdi is stored on the throne, Huangtian Shangdi…During an annual sacrifice, the emperor would carry these tablets to the north part of the Temple of Heaven, a place called the ‘Prayer Hall For Good Harvests’, and place them on that throne.”

Some creationist sites refer to primary sources, such as the prayer that the emperor used at the annual sacrifice, or Chinese creation stories (see here and here). I read here that the Ming Dynasty completed the Temple of Heaven in 1420 A.D., not B.C. Could Christianity have influenced China, in some fashion? Marco Polo, a European who traveled to China, lived in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, which was prior to 1420. And yet, the wikipedia article mentions references to Shangdi from before the time of Christ, sometimes way before. But when did the aniconism enter the picture?

I found different things about Shangdi on the wikipedia article. Yes, the emperor sacrificed to him in the Temple of Heaven, but there’s also the statement that the Chinese did not sacrifice to Shangdi directly, at least during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.E.), but rather to other spirits and deities. There was a sentiment that Shangdi was transcendent and not very approachable. And, even at the Temple of Heaven, there is an acknowledgement that other gods exist. But, according to the wikipedia article on the Chinese view of monotheism, there were some pre-Christian Chinese schools of thought that were closer to monotheism. This article (by an unnamed someone), however, actually says that “From the earliest times of Chinese history, and especially before the Zhou Dynasty…Shangdi was worshiped as the Supreme Deity of the ancient monotheistic religion of China.”

I’ve also come across the view that Shangdi was an ancestor in a couple of places (see here and here).

I wish I could find better sources online, say, by people with doctorates in Asian studies, or people who refer profusely to primary sources, which I could find online or in a library, or Asians themselves. But I have to start somewhere! Overall, I would not be surprised if China had rituals similar to those of the ancient Hebrews, since many peoples have desired a good harvest, and have sought to atone for misdeeds that they believe could hinder that. As far as Shangdi goes, in general, he appears to be the Supreme Being, but conceptualization of him has been slightly in flux, as far as I can see.


  1. On my Wordpress blog, Forrest Curo says the following:

    There is another book called _The Jesus Sutras_. Evidently there were Christian missionaries in China from very early on, except they came from eastern Christian congregations rather than the Church we inherited via the Roman Empire.

    Afghanistan & Tibet were rich, highly civilized countries at the time, parts of an active trade route linking the Middle East to China.

    [Before that time, the Buddhists had a male patron-saint/deity of compassion & mercy-- and then she became Kwan Yin, who often appears with a baby in her early depictions.]

    The early missionary writings that have been preserved are rather simple, sort of primitive “believe this and you’ll make it” tracts presented in a Buddhist style & framework. An acquired taste which I haven’t acquired…

  2. I would like to know more also about original sources for Chinese literature. Some say that this is more problematic than western original sources. The story I have heard is that the emperors had no qualms about changing the text of classics to suit their power needs and whims. China has been through several episodes of book burning, with the latest being the Cultural Revolution, but the first emperor to unify China did the same. Then there is the challenge of finding a credible scholar to help through all this ... I have been listening to lectures from one Buddhist professor recently, but there is a sense that he - as a Westerner - romanticizes things too much and isn't as detached and thorough as would suit a scholar.

  3. Those are important considerations. This may be a huge question, but you've spent time in Taiwan. What is your impression of their religion? I remember you sharing that some of them have a health-and-wealth mentality. But do they worship a personal Supreme Being, or anticipate a savior figure, in your experience?

  4. I speak enough Chinese and Japanese for daily conversation, but not enough to really get in deep with anyone on religious topics, unless they are western educated and it can be done in English.

    One of my colleagues got caught up in a group that we would call a cult where a lady set herself up as the "Supreme Master". (Ph.d. in engineering from the University of Texas.) The Supreme Master lady claims to be some reincarnation of Buddha. (You can get a flavor at or just googling "supreme master") A feature of Buddhism is that Buddha and all the great teachers can reincarnate over and over again, while they don't seem to have any notion of a "false Buddha", thus, making for a multiplication of cults. I say cult here because it is definitely the following of a person, since my friend had pictures of her posted around his house and played tapes of her chanting all the time. The leaders of these cults are expected to die and reincarnate somewhere else, thus, driving the dynamics of these groups.

    That is just one snippet. Most seem to be no more familiar with Buddhism than a random Catholic would be of Catholicism.


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