I have two items for my write-up of Chapter 6 of David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. The chapter is entitled “Congratulations, Get Rich”, and it focuses on fu, which is happiness, or prosperity.
1. On page 73, Marshall states: “Only a fraction of traditional Chinese cures have been tested in Western laboratories. How many valuable secrets are hidden on back shelves and in the knapsacks of herb salesmen? Health is an esoteric art in China, and many remarkable drugs are likely to vanish if folk medicine is neglected.”
I love this passage! Why? Part of the reason is that my Grandma and my Mom owned a health food store for many years. Part of it is the notion that perhaps the East has things to teach the West, which means that the West doesn’t have all the answers. And part of it is the sense of mystery that’s there.
2. On page 78, Marshall states: “We don’t need to be ashamed of our animal desires; the mouth was formed to be filled with food, as the dirt was to grow plants. Yet it also implies God must be the foundation of our most basic pleasures. Man does not live by rice alone. We are also made to know God.”
I agree with this balanced approach. But there is a strong tradition of asceticism within Christianity, and at least part of the reason is things that show up in the New Testament. Here are some passages in the KJV. Some of them have been interpreted in the history of Christianity to tend towards asceticism, whereas others perhaps can be interpreted in that direction:
Matthew 6:19-20: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal…”
Matthew 5:28: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Matthew 19:12: “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
Luke 12:33: “Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.” (The audience here is, not the rich young ruler, but Jesus’ little flock. So Protestants can’t say that Jesus’ command to sell possessions applied only to that one rich man!)
I Corinthians 7:1-9: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” (Here, Paul appears to tolerate and even encourage sex within marriage, but there has been a long-standing belief that he is presenting celibacy as better.)
Granted, there are New Testament passages that tend in the opposite direction. Jesus came eating and drinking (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding (John 2). Hebrews 13:4 praises the marriage bed. I Timothy 4:3-4 criticizes ascetics who sought to forbid marriage and the consumption of certain meats, which were made to be eaten with thanksgiving. But there also appears to be a tradition that there is something special about voluntary poverty and celibacy, and that tradition seems to be present in rudimentary stages within the New Testament. And this tradition was influential throughout the history of Christianity, which explains monasteries, Origen castrating himself, Christian disdain for sexuality, Christian misogyny, etc. Elaine Pagels talks about this in her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.
What’s my point? Marshall’s argument throughout this book has been that China should embrace Christianity, or, more accurately, the Christianity that he believes is of the Bible. For Marshall, Christianity preserves the best of Chinese culture and religion, while also lacking the deficiencies within them. In the case of fu, Marshall maintains that Christianity is all for bodily pleasures and prosperity, but that it wants for us to also worship God—-for God to be the foundation of our pleasures. But my point is this: Christianity has come in so many shapes and sizes that it’s hard to say that “Christianity” will meet China’s desires and needs. Is the tradition of Christian asceticism consistent with China’s regard for fu? Marshall could then say that the Christianity that he’s promoting is the biblical one, but I think that many different forms of Christianity are biblical, in some sense: they just emphasize different passages.