To my knowledge this blog hasn't tackled too many issues of church history, so this post may be more "Out of Place" than "Out of Ur." Still, I have found that the past often illuminates my understanding of my faith and the times we all inhabit. In fact, I often use historical illustrations in my sermons. Not long ago, while doing some sermon prep, I was researching Christianity in 16th century Japan (stop yawning). The story of a small group of underground believers caught my attention.
In 1549 the Jesuit missionary Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan. As the church grew rapidly to 300,000 the shoguns became uneasy with the European influence over their country. In 1641, the missionaries were expelled from Japan and Christians were required to register as Buddhists or Shintoists. Those who refused were pursued and executed. The brutal persecution cleansed Japan from virtually all Western influence.
Unknown to the shoguns, however, some continued to hold to their Christian faith. Known as Crypto-Christians, or Kakure, their external lives were indistinguishable from other Japanese. They adopted the practices, forms, and appearances of non-Christians to ensure survival. The Crypto-Christians even constructed Buddhist shrines in their homes with secret compartments where Christian icons and statues were hidden and prayers were offered to the "closet god."
The strategy of adopting Japanese cultural forms to mask their Christian faith continued for 240 years, but this survival plan backfired.
Over time the Crypto-Christians confused their Christian beliefs and their Japanese disguises. The result was the emergence of a hybrid religion no longer resembling the orthodox faith of the missionaries. When Europeans regained entrance to Japan in the 19th Century they were astonished to see communities of hidden Christians returning from the hills around Nagasaki.
This amazement waned, however, when they discovered the faith of these forgotten Christians was hardly Christianity. As one historian notes, "Although the faith followed by the underground Christians had the outward appearances of Christianity, the vital content and spirit of the religion evolved into something entirely different?It would be more accurate to call it a folk religion altogether Japanese in spirit and content."
Thousands of Kakure still exist in Japan today, and at least 80 house churches continue to worship the "closet god" by reciting rituals in an indecipherable amalgam of Japanese and Latin. When Pope John Paul II visited Japan in 1981 he met with the leaders of the Kakure community to welcome them back into the fold of the Catholic Church. "We have no interest in joining his church," one Crypto-Christian said; "We, and nobody else, are true Christians."
Ironically, it is often our zeal to protect our faith that leads to its loss. Abram was called to leave his country and follow the alternative ways of God. But when feeling threatened Abram disguised himself with the ways of Egypt, allowing his wife to be taken into Pharaoh's house. Later, God called Israel to be separate from the nations - an alternative people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood. But in time they felt threatened and asked God for a king (a leadership model employed by their enemies) to protect them. The peoples' desire was innocent enough. They still wanted to follow God, they just wanted to do it in a way more "like the nations around them." The Lord warned that a king would rule over them just as Pharaoh had in Egypt, but the people refused to listen.