It is a mistake, Chan argues, to judge these preoccupations as expressions of syncretism and superstition. To issue that verdict is to neglect the close theological connections between traditional Asian religion and biblical Christianity. To be sure, simply assuming those connections uncritically can lead to dangers. Evangelicals will best serve these fellow believers by carefully applying the light of biblical revelation to their “lived theology.”
Chan models this kind of careful theological reflection himself. The result is a robust discussion of some significant theological topics, many of them vitally important within Western contexts as well. He explores at some length, for example, the relevance of Asia’s honor-and-shame culture for an evangelicalism that has typically concentrated primarily on the concepts of sin and guilt. To be sure, the Bible calls us guilty sinners who have rebelled against our Creator. But the disobedience of our first parents in the Garden was also an affront to God’s honor, resulting in their hiding in shame from their Lord. To ignore these honor-and-shame themes is to miss much of what the Bible tells us about our shared humanity.
Chan also addresses the topic of the veneration of ancestors, a subject seldom discussed among Western evangelicals. For Christians struggling to understand whether coming to faith can shed light on the state of their ancestors’ souls, this is a crucial concern. Chan’s analyses of the doctrine of purgatory and Christ’s “descent into hell” are provocative—and, I think (having been asked anxious questions about the fate of ancestors by recent converts in China), deserving of further exploration.
There are times in Chan’s discussions, of course, when some readers won’t be fully satisfied. (I personally am not completely happy, for example, with Chan’s insistence that we have to choose in favor of Karl Barth’s way of avoiding cultural “accommodation” over Paul Tillich’s “correlational” methodology. On a purely theological level, of course, Barth’s substantive theology is the clear winner over Tillich’s liberalism. But in the search for helpful ways to root biblical truth in different cultures, many of us will prefer certain elements in Tillich’s approach to the stern “Nein!” that Barth often uttered on such questions.)
Also, those of us who support an egalitarian understanding of gender relations will certainly have some problems. Chan insists that the “hierarchy” of church and family patterns in Asian cultures fits the biblical pattern better than a strong emphasis on gender equality. Of course, to the degree that we egalitarians can simply be seen as imposing “Western” biases on other cultures, we should pursue this conversation. But it’s also necessary to look at the diversity within Asia itself. Through the difficult years of China’s Cultural Revolution, for example, many rural churches survived under the gifted preaching and teaching of “Bible ladies.” That pattern of strong women’s leadership in church and family persists as an important reality in grassroots Chinese Christianity.