The gift of theology from the margins
Simon Chan’s insightful book Grassroots Asian Theology upends Western theological presuppositions and invites one to consider the gift of indigenous theologies birthed and nurtured at the margins. While his observations are frequently surprising for the Western reader, in no way is Chan attempting to be heretical. Indeed, because he speaks from the fringes, his voice is a prophetic call to consider legitimate ways of relating to God. Because his theologies are informed from non-Western contexts, it may take the Western reader a leap of faith to engage significantly with his work. Doing so is worth her while.
In many ways as I read this book, I found resonance with how Asian theological development at the grassroots can help to preserve and advance orthodoxy in our global Church. In fact, as postmodernism continues to corrode the foundations of Western thought, we may indeed find relief in the orthodox expressions of faith being nurtured on the margins in places like Mumbai, Sapporo, and Shanghai. These places where Christianity lies at the margins of social acceptability allows fruitfulness to emerge over time without the pressures of conforming to the cultural status quo which often is infected with assumptions that are more cultural than rooted in the original gospel narrative.
Asian theologies chafe against the starting points of Western modes of understanding the gospel. Western theologies are rooted in the value of the individual as made in the image of God. Western egalitarianism pushes against hierarchy and the unique role of priestly presence. With our Enlightenment-fuelled orientation, we also appeal to reason. Law, guilt, and punishment are key themes in soteriology. Many of the key themes of the gospel are found to be tainted with Western cultural assumptions.
In many ways Chan’s thesis counters James Davison Hunter’s belief that the elites are the generators and upholders of culture. While Hunter would claim that culture is changed through influencing Western centres of power, Chan introduces a more robust viewpoint that roots itself at the margins rather than at the centre. While we listen to the voices of secularity to inform the relevance of our outreach, Chan would encourage us to spend time with grassroots women and men of faith who struggle to love Jesus and live out His love from places far removed from the centres.
We often begin our theologizing with the current, contextual problem at hand: poverty, or inequality, or powerlessness, for example. Each of these frequently begins with one’s personal and individual poverty, inequality, and powerlessness. This is an attitude based upon one’s rights, which is a Western construct foreign to Asia. In the West, I alone am at the centre. In Asia, with the understanding of the value of extended family and kinship structures, one already has available a sense of living for the broader good.
Chan states: “Much of the theologies undertaken by contextual theologians have generally failed to take ecclesial experience into serious consideration.” What Chan encourages, however, is alignment toward a theology that begins with the church. We are the Body of Christ, and consideration of our purpose and identity as being bigger than oneself becomes self-evident.
Chan quotes an unnamed Latin American theologian who states that “[A] theology that ignores the grassroots is not likely to go very far.” Throughout the book he highlights the frequent ways we pay attention to the elites rather than listen to the underdogs of society. One’s theology should also listen before speaking. Consider Arvind P. Nirmal, an Indian theologian who specialized in Dalit theology, a theology of the lowest castes of the sub-continent. He “regards Jesus as a Dalit, whose dalitness was seen in his identification with the poor and outcast and in his suffering in the hands of the religious elite, including Christian elite! This is why Nirmal and other Dalit theologians are highly critical of liberation theologies expounded by the elite who are not often victims of oppression.” Though liberation theology frequently presupposes it speaks for the oppressed, it is doing so from a theoretical, elite space rather than the brutal lived reality of the grassroots.
Theologian Anh Tran critiques Chan for not defining the difference between elite and grassroots, stating: A major criticism of the book is that the line dividing “elitist” and “grassroots” theologies is not as clearly demarcated as [Chan] supposes; each side has made important contributions to theological discourses. [Chan’s] preference for Karl Barth over Paul Tillich, or Watchman Nee over C. S. Song, reflects his theological orientation rather than giving a fair assessment of these “elitist” theologians, furthermore, [Chan’s] claim that the “hierarchy” of church and family found in Asian cultures is more nearly biblical may pose a problem for those who support a “Western” egalitarianism of discipleship.
Chris Flanders likewise states in Missiology that: “[I]t is not at all clear what makes Wan Ming Dao, Paul Yonggi Cho, or Watchman Nee “non-elite.” The distinction Chan uses to ground this provocative work seems more about theological position (evangelical/Pentecostal versus liberal/mainline) than elite–non-elite.” Conflating evangelical/Pentecostal with non-elite and liberal/mainline with elite broadly stereotypes both groups.
Despite these legitimate critiques, this book is a call for Westerners to humbly listen to other voices, outside the mainstream, and to pay attention to how theologies from the margins can enhance, shape and restructure our own ideas of God and the church in our world. For Christian philanthropists, who come from a place of power and who are learning to surrender, these are important lessons. As I read, there emerged contributions which Asian theologies make to the global church, that would inform and empower all of us as we live out faithful presence. Adapting these into our understanding of Gospel will be enriching to all.
 Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 18.
 Chan, 72.
 Chan, 101.
 Anh Q. Tran, “Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up.” Theological Studies 76, no. 2 (2015): 394+. Academic OneFile (accessed May 31, 2018). http://link.galegroup.com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A415323327/AONE?u=newb64238&sid=AONE&xid=509c2245.
 Chris Flanders, “Book Review: Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up.” Missiology 43, no. 3 (July 1, 2015): 347–48. Accessed May 31, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091829615578796g.
9 responses to “The gift of theology from the margins”
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Excellent introduction and set-up for the Western reader. Great picture of the “fire trap” living that so many people see as their “normal” space to raise a family. Talk about Western culture shock! As a previous public safety-worker I see horrible images in that picture of what tight spaces can do to families; from abuses of vulnerable children to how to escape a fire.
How do you see Chan as “prophetic?” Also, do you have any examples of Christianity at the margins? I saw the are of Ancestor Veneration as one of those margin areas that is deep in culture, but not edgy on Biblical support.
Nice tie into the philanthropy side of your research. Do you work with any Asian wealth scenarios?
Thanks Mike. Yes, that photo is truly grim!!
In my work I have a second generation Chinese-Canadian family as clients. I love working with them. They would face many of the same challenges as mentioned in Chris’ post this week.
A brilliant, in-depth discussion of your’s once again, especially surrounding the “elite” and “elitist” parts of Chan’s book. It was especially deepened by your point about Watchman Nee supposedly being non-elite. Well done!
I appreciated your closing paragraph talking about the “margins” of the “global church”, and am thankful once again, that we are part of a DMin of from the standpoint of a GLOBAL perspective!
I appreciated you bringing out the egalitarian argument in the book, and as you can imagine, I disagree with the author’s view on egalitarianism and his dismissal of that contextual reading of scripture. I also disagree with his perspective on the Trinity being hierarchical. I feel like the concept of the Trinity is very much egalitarian in that the three are equal to the one. Great post once again Mark!
Great discussion, I am curious, the last part of your post deals with elite vs non-elite and you had a problem of Chan lumping evangelical/pentecostal as non-elite and mainline as elites. While I agree that this stereotypes both sides, it would probably be one of the things many baptists would agree with, not sure what that says about the SBC but it is there. Do you see this in your dealings with non mainline protestants?
I’m so bummed. I just wrote a long response to your excellent post. Then my internet went out and it got erased. Drat. I’ll have to ask you in person when we zoom…
Awesome Mark. So appreciated your perspective. So many times I just kept thinking “amen brother”. I did find it interesting as well that those labels “elite” would probably have classified themselves as grassroots. Those powerhouse names like watchman nee wrote and spoke at a very practical everyday level. I too am excited that theologians from around the world are entering into the greater global discussion.
As always, you write a wonderful review of this text. I’m curious how your own philanthropy business can be impacted by this book? Are you investing (I think you are?) in Asian programs and ministry? IF so, how will you apply this learning in your own ministry?
Mark, I believe you touched on the challenge for Christianity to reach people from so many variables of society, and yet still strive to maintain the integrity of the message. The reality of early Christianity was that the message of Christ to the Jews would have never have been perceived in the manner as it would have when preached to the Gentiles. Furthermore, a woman will have a different grasps of some scripture as compared to that of a man’s; an easterner would perceive things different than a westerner; and a lawyer would probably perceive things different than a homeless person. So how does a modern day theologian/minister determine is the proper methodology for reaching his current audience? It is the realization that though the message of Christ does not change, its impact on the listeners could be exponentially different in effect. The variables of culture, traditions, governments, races, gender and maybe even where you buy your groceries, could play a role in how you interpreted the call of Christ in your life. You said that “many of the key themes of the Bible are found to be tainted with Western cultural assumptions.” Though I understand your point, I feel that your comment actually demonstrates the reality…not the problem. In the same way that we need to understand Eastern society in order to properly evangelize, we also should not negate the methods that necessary for success in a Western world…even though they may not be the same methods necessary in Hong Kong or elsewhere. The true object is for us to figure out how to reach everyone with the true and honest Gospel of Jesus Christ; even if it takes more than one method to do so.