Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: 'The Life and Ministry of John Sung' by Lim Ka-Tong

This book is probably the most detailed study on John Sung available so far. The author, Lim Ka-Tong, has helpfully condensed his 502-pages doctoral thesis submitted to Asbury Theological Seminary in 2009 into this important guide into the life of one of the most well known preachers of 20th century southeast Asia. 

The book is structured into 7 parts, 37 chapters, 1 introduction and 1 conclusion. Within each chapter, Lim further categorized the content into sub-chapters. This makes the book tremendously easy to read! 

Lim introduces this biography not simply as a story about a person but "a fruitful venue for theologizing" in a "quest for an authentic Asian Christian theology." (p.xiv) The biography in enriching the "cultural worldview of Chinese Christianity, and its effect on the intellectual and affective realm will make truth tangible and real." (p.xviii)

Part 1 of the book describes the historical setting of Sung's world by briefly jotting down the socio-political situation, the condition of Chinese Churches, and the theological controversy in the early 20th century. Lim highlights the love-hate relationship the Chinese in China had towards foreigners. 

On one hand, the locals "embraced Western learning and scientific knowledge wholeheartedly" yet on another hand, "deeply resentful of the West". (p.6) The missionary activities and local Churches are caught in this ironic relation. The anti-Christian movement is chronologically distinguished into 3 different waves which took place from 1920 to 1927. It is very interesting that Lim attributed the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who traveled and lectured "extensively" in China between 1919 to 1921, as one of the causes of the anti-Christian movement in China.

During those years, the "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy" was not confined only in America. The Bible Union of China is formed as a response to the threats of theological liberalism. Lim pointed to the exchange between Browell Gage and D. E. Hoster as evident of this controversy. The former wrote an article titled 'Why I Cannot Join the Bible Union' in January 1921 issue of The Chinese Recorder. The latter, who was then the director of the China Inland Mission, responded with an article titled 'Why I Have Joined the Bible Union of China' in July 1921. As the result of theological liberalism, the missionary activities are significantly affected.

In Part 2, the book traces Sung's early years from his birth to his release from the Bloomingdale Asylum. Lim patiently recollects Sung's academic pursuit in America, his active involvement in the "Social Gospel", and his various struggles which resulted his admission into asylum. This section has proved to be my favorite in the book, for I am especially interested to learn more about Sung's experience and encounter in that time.

Sung picked up English language, toiled tirelessly to finance his undergraduate study, actively promoted interracial bonding during the segregation period, and received his Ph.D in Chemistry from the Ohio State University at the age of 24. However, it was also within this period that Sung unconsciously adopted scientism and naturalism. Hence as he went further into his studies, he was not able to relate his academic pursuit with the Christian faith he has brought up with. His enrollment into Union Theological Seminary in New York did not help the problem he faced. This struggle has prolonged and caused him to fell into depression.

After his "breakthrough" from the depression in one evening, Sung spent the following week confronting fellow students and professors at the seminary, scolding and pleading them to repent. (p.66) The seminary thought that it would be to Sung's good to have him admitted into Bloomingdale Asylum. The seminary generously paid for Sung's 6-months treatment at the hospital.

Lim used Chapter 11 to assess Sung's mental illness. The hospital record shows that Sung was diagnosed with "Dementia praecox" (schizophrenia) but Lim argued that Sung remained sane throughout his stay at Bloomingdale. (p.69-72) In my view, Lim could be more careful in explaining Sung's predicament. This lack has resulted in a mistaken view on Sung's status as "an icon of Chinese Evangelicalism" (Chapter 36), which shall be pointed out below after my reconstruction of Sung's trouble.

As I see it, Sung's problem originated in his inability to relate his academic pursuit with his Christian religion. We know that Sung enjoyed the intellectual engagement with science (p.56-57) although the subject does not provide him the spiritual fulfillment he used to experience through his faith (as epitomized in his reminiscence of the encounter with 14-years-old evangelist Uldine Mabelle Utley, p.61-63). To Sung, science and Christianity is mutually contradictory (the so-called 'conflict thesis'). After all, it was this intense conflict between two desires (the 'scientist Sung' and 'preacher Sung') that threw him into depression.  (p.52-64)

The "breakthrough" that Sung experienced can therefore be understood as an event when Sung has decided to abandon his intellectual engagement entirely for the sake of spiritual fulfillment. Hence, contra Lim, Bloomingdale may be correct to diagnosed Sung as schizophrenic. Therefore Lim's view that "Sung was normal during his whole stay at hospital" (p.70) deserves re-examination.  Due to this, Lim wrongly interprets Sung's derogatory reference (written on his second day at the asylum) to the "Spirit of Christ" as "dog" as evident of Sung being Americanized. (p.72) If I am correct in my assessment, this reference is the manifestation of Sung's schizophrenia; He loved and hated the unresolvable conflicting position he found himself in.

To be clear, Sung has already decided which personality he wanted to be before being admitted into Bloomingdale. His stay there would be the period for him to adapt to his decided personality as the preacher Sung, and the asylum's assessment on him was a reflection of this process of adaptation.

If this is true, then Lim's view of Sung as "an icon of Chinese Evangelicalism" for reasons like he affirms the Bible "as the Word of God" as a "scientist" is mistaken. We have to understand that the 'scientist Sung' is already gone when Sung decided to be 'preacher Sung'. Lim may have overlooked this as he himself has recorded Sung's own testimony said in 1938, "[As] a scientist, I believed in natural laws and did not believe in the existence of God. I was against the teaching of the Bible. There's no heaven, and there's no hell." (p.57, emphasis added) Therefore we have to reckon that Sung's famed status as a Ph.D holder in Chemistry, which is one main reason for his popularity, is not representative of the preacher Sung. The scientist Sung is not the preacher Sung; the two personalities are mutual contradicting to Sung himself.

Part 3 to 7 of the book records the life and ministry of the preacher Sung. These chapters contain fascinating accounts of Sung's evangelistic, healing, and Bible-teaching ministries. There are recorded numbers of conversion from a few to the thousands through Sung's rallies. Lim also mentioned Sung's negligence of his family, his bad working relationship with colleagues like Andrew Gih, his encounter with Pentecostalism and theology of the Holy Spirit, his constant scolding of other preachers, his medical condition that led to his death, and his struggles with pride--trying to prove himself as better preacher than others. Despite Sung's flaws, it is amazing to learn of his passionate outreach that spanned across not only China but also almost all parts of southeast Asia. Bear in mind that all those travelings happened in the 1930s!

The conclusion is Lim's constructive sketch of what we can learn from the life and ministry of Sung. Lim explored and developed various theological themes based on the biographical data he provided. One of the many insights that I find helpful is Lim's distinguishing between "Encountering the Power" from "Power Encounter" drawn from Sung's teaching. The former focuses on the process and the fruit of the Spirit, while the latter on the event and the gift of the Spirit. It prompts me to ask what should a present Christian ministry look for? May be Sung himself has asked this numerous times. And the answer to this question could be the very reason that led Sung to work through his life and ministry in the way that he did.

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