Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book Review: 'Christian Movements In Southeast Asia: A Theological Exploration', edited by Michael Nai-Chiu Poon

This book is the result of a recent project from The Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College. It belongs to the Centre's CSCA Christianity in Southeast Asia Series. This is the second book in the series.

There are altogether seven chapters, including the 'Introduction'. The project involved six scholars from across various geographical background: Michael Poon (Singapore), Simon Chan (Singapore), W. John Roxborogh (Malaysia-New Zealand), Charles Farhadian (USA), Roger Hedlund (India), and Andrew Walls (UK). Here is the Content:

Introduction: The Theological Locus of Christian Movements in Southeast Asia — Michael Poon

Chapter One: Folk Christianity and Primal Spirituality: Prospects for Theological Development
— Simon Chan

Chapter Two: Situating Southeast Asian Christian Movements in the History of World Christianity
— W. John Roxborogh

Chapter Three: Present-day Independent Christian Movements: A South Asian Perspective
— Roger E. Hedlund

Chapter Four: Understanding Southeast Asian Christianity — Roger E. Hedlund

Chapter Five: A Missiological Reflection on Present-day Christian Movements in Southeast Asia — Charles E. Farhadian

Chapter Six: Documentation and Ecclesial Deficit: A Personal Plea to Churches — Andrew F. Walls

The gist of the book is this question: What is Southeast Asia Christianity?

The book is not to provide a definite statement to spell out the Christian phenomenon in this part of the world. Instead, it describes certain characteristics of this phenomenon and suggest that the possible attempt to answer that question is by building on these characteristics.

The main characteristic that this project learned in its investigation is to see the Christian phenomenon as a "movement" (p. x-xviii), a term the book unhesitatingly criticizes (p. xi-xii) yet assumes liberally (with a bit of discussion on Roman Catholic's and Protestant's missiology) without clarifying how it is used throughout the book. This project mainly revolves around the activities of accounting for the emergence of local movements of the Christian faith.

To account is to talk history. That's why there are four chapters (including the substantial discussion in Poon's introductory chapter) dedicated to provide a historical sketch of Christianity in the local scenes. Roxborogh's chapter and Hedlund's two chapters can be read as three parts of a historical narrative. They provide us a survey of what have happened so far among the Christian communities located in Southeast Asia, in particular Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Farhadian's chapter is mainly a broad sociological description of Southeast Asians' present contexts, hence also their concerns. He considers globalisation, migration, religious activities, and socio-political predicament as the "questions that currently seem important for the region" (p. 118). These areas serve as missionary possibilities as well as situations, if taken to task, would forge a distinct expression of Southeast Asian Christianity.

Chan's article explores the spirituality landscape of Southeast Asia and propose that Pentecostal theology/spirituality as the ground to appreciate and engage "folk Christianity." By "folk Christianity", Chan was referring to "the contextualisation of the gospel in primal religious contexts" (p. 1). He suggests that such approach may lead us to "discover something that does not quite fit into any of the known [theological] categories" (p. 16).

Chan has a commendable section discussing the distinction between "contextualisation" and "syncretism." He discreetly remarks that "Unless the questions of contextualization and syncretism are addressed responsibly, it would be difficult to see how any credible theology would arise from the study of folk Christianity" (p. 5-9).

Wall's concluding chapter is an apt appeal for Southeast Asians to practice constant documentation. It is through collected data that works on accounting Christian movements can be sustained and carried forward. Yet, this raises a question: Wouldn't the adoption of such method by the locals to account for (that is to give ontology via written/printed words) their expression of the faith already influenced the expression itself and so shaped the Southeast Asian Christianity into something else?

For instance, in the chapter 'Understanding Southeast Asian Christianity', Hedlund gives the impression, through C. K. Tong's data, that "intellectual conversion [to Christianity] is prevalent, and involves gradual exposure and a process of evaluation. Converts repeatedly have indicated that they found Christianity 'a rational religion'" (p. 68. Emphasis added). But is such impression the case?

To be fair to Tong, he did mentioned that his impression is not definite:

"I am aware that there are methodological issues relating to the reliability and validity of informants' account of their religious conversion. [...] conversion accounts are forms of social construction and therefore not necessarily neutral or objective: 'actors' accounts of their religious conversion as situated in social contexts which lend them meaning. [...] While not claiming that the conversion accounts reported by the informants are "objective" [...] Snow and Machalek (1984) suggest that conversion narratives are processes of biographical reconstructions, and such personal biographies are constantly reinterpreted in the face of new information and experiences. [...] While I do agree that the accounting of conversion must be viewed as narratives, whether they are actual occurrences, I argue, is a moot point."
(Chee Kiong Tong, Rationalizing Religion: Religious conversion, Revivalism and Competition in Singapore Society [Netherlands: Brill, 2007], p. 108-109).

The point I'm driving at is that Hedlund's approving statement in his chapter has endowed a different ontology to Tong's otherwise rather uncertain impression. The impression Hedlund gives is one that is not supported by the source (Tong's data) he consulted. Hence, such method of reference has created a reality that may not be the case.

So, in our adoption of a particular method of documentation and documenting only that which we consider interesting or worthy, we are exposing ourselves to the risk of distorting the account of the real Southeast Asian Christianity. In the end, the accounts that we have are only those which are skewed towards certain institutions or power that be. Yes, documentation is essential, yet how can we control, reduce, and eliminate such risk?

Overall, the book has tiled the ground to cater for much potential works in the future. There are many areas that we can develop from and local histories we can investigate further. On a personal basis, I have attempted a brief account of the theological scene in Singapore in the first half of twentieth century. Nonetheless I want to highlight two major topics which the project should have included. Perhaps in the future, CSCA might.

First, the project should discuss the ministry of the influential Indonesian evangelist Stephen Tong. His influence extends across Southeast Asia, in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Although Stephen Tong's ministry is not a manifestation of 'folk Christianity' (since he is heavily influenced by and embodied certain manifestation of Dutch Reformed theology), yet given his massive missionary activities in the region, one can hardly deny the role he plays in shaping Southeast Asian Christianity over the past two decades.

Second, the project has not taken into account the contemporary role played by Northwestern Christianity through their theological institutions and missionary activities. If most of the Trinity Theological College's lecturers, CSCA fellows, and local church leaders are educated at the Northwestern part of the world, or from within the adopted educational structures from that hemisphere (through the prevalent usage of books/textbooks, journals, curriculum, websites, e-resources, and audio-visual products at local seminaries and churches) then such phenomena need to be taken into account as well.

In addition, I think that an analysis of the books that are popularly read among the locals (data may be collected from local Christian and secular bookshops/publishers) may shed important insights to the identity of Southeast Asian Christianity.

These few overlooks make me wonder if this theological exploration was too heavily dominated by certain Western biases that take particular interest in the 'native', 'folk' or 'primal' rather than the variant urban and middle-class manifestations of Southeast Asian Christianity that emerged from the present global interconnectedness? I think this project can be more exact if it includes this latter aspect.

If part of the project is to answer the question "Who are we?" and "What the Southeast Asian experience means for world Christianity?" (p. 21), then I don't see any reason not to include also the localized expression of the various indigenized types of Northwestern Christianity that have managed to take their roots among Southeast Asian communities.


Trebuchet said...

It's also interesting to read historical accounts based on church archives. Earnest Lau's 'From Mission to Church: the Evolution of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia 1885-1976' is one such compact volume.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Trebuchet,

Thanks for the comment. Yes, it is interesting to learn how what we have now come from.