There’s an old saying about how to eat an elephant: you have to do it, “one bite at a time.” A similar conundrum faces anyone who seeks to understand or explain Christianity in Asia in a comprehensive or all-encompassing way. The region is a behemoth that is home to 4.4 billion people, which makes it hard to give any single description that will always be true. It must be taken in in bite-sized portions.
For this reason, Simon Chan writes Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up. He readily acknowledges that, “this is not a systematic theology. My main focus is on how theology ought to be done. This book is as much concerned with the processes as the content of theology. Only the content that has a particular bearing on the Asian context is highlighted in each theological locus.”
While he is in conversation with the larger Christian tradition, Chan is also trying to sketch out a distinctly “Asian theology”, which arises from the real, lived experience of Asian Christians. One reviewer writes that Chan, “aims to shift the Asian theological discourse from ‘elitist theology’ (e.g., Minjung theology, Dalit theology, C. S. Song, Kosuke Koyama, etc.) towards ‘grassroots theology’.”
For many Westerners, these names will be new, but they are the equivalent of what we might call “the elite establishment”. These are the voices and movements that have largely defined what it means to be an “Asian Christian”, at least as far as the outside world is concerned. However, Chan is challenging their hegemony and relevance for today. He writes, “failure to take folk Christianity seriously, as we have seen in mainline Protestant Christianity, has resulted in either a fossilized tradition (mostly among the more conservative) or one that is subject to the whims of cultural changes (mostly among the more liberal).”
Chan’s book seeks to raise up an awareness of the “realities on the ground” for Christianity in Asia today. He does that by exploring the theological implications from the Asian priority for the family, how “honor and shame” function in Asian cultures, and the third major theme of Chan’s book is on the importance of Pentecostalism.
It must be noted that Simon Chan is himself a Pentecostal Christian, which may account for some of his fiery focus on it. However, this also puts him close to the primary sources as he works on a more contextualized Asian theology.
Chan writes that contextualization means “Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of principles that could be replicated in any context without reference to their historical origins.” So, a theology for Asian Christians will be part of a larger conversation, but is not simply imposed from the outside. At the same time, Chan wants to get closer to the ground, rather than relying on what he calls “elitist theologians”who have acted as gatekeepers and tastemakers in the past.
In one beautiful description, Chan describes the work of theology involving the theologian and the faith community in a relationship something like a bishop with the laity. He says, “theology is ratified in the church by the laity’s ‘amen’; without it, theology is merely the imposition of the theologian’s own ideas.” This would always be the danger and fear when it comes to “doing theology” especially with context in mind. Chan’s argument in this book is that the “lived experience” or the real situation among churches and in them, is what must be accounted for in a contextualized theology. Otherwise, it is an imposition that will not take root or thrive. For contextualized theologies to seem like a foreign invasion keeps the confirming “amen” from coming.
Of course, the gospel also has a prophetic aspect to it, which will challenge and push those who hear it out of easy answers or patterns. This is what Chan calls “cultural bondage” or the way that theology can be held captive by the host culture. He cites Karl Barth’s writing about nineteenth century Protestant theology in Europe, which “produced a string of disastrous compromises with culture culminating in the un-critical acceptance of the policies of Wilhelm II which led to World War I and the hearty endorsement of Hitler’s Third Reich.”
Chan surveys the various approaches and the problems and pitfalls that come with each. In a way, he sets up his book to say: there is a “grassroots Asian theology, but it is probably not what you might think that it is”. He is anticipating the responses and questions that many will have about the very idea of contextualized theology.
This response is summed up in the long-simmering “All Lives Matter” versus “Black Lives Matter” debate in the United States. Here is the tension between the universal and the particular. The way that while it is true that “all lives matter”, it can also be particularly helpful and important, given history, context and current events, to say that “black lives matter”.
What is exciting about reading and thinking about contextualized theology in Asia is that Chan presents it as a living, moving, still-developing thing. The challenge for me, as a Western Christian, is to resist my urge to “universalize” everything. Not make it an “all lives matter” moment, but rather than to appreciate and discover the distinctiveness of Asian Christian experience, and then, to build bridges with my own lived experience of the faith.
Even in this small introduction to the topic, it is clear there is a hearty theological meal on offer. But it has to be received one bite at a time.
Alexander Chow, “Simon Chan’s ‘grassroots Asian Theology’ – a Book Review,” www.alexanderchow.wordpress.com, July 24, 2014, https://alexanderchow.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/grassroots-asian-theology/.