Books: Jesus Comes to China --- And the World May Never Be the Same






There's a revolutionary movement sweeping across China that could change the face of global politics forever. It's called Christianity.

Or at least this is David Aikman's thesis in "Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power." (Regnery, $27.95, 344 pages) Mr. Aikman's thesis is bold, but strange. According to him, China is moving toward becoming a Christian country, and this will turn the world's bad boy into a good global neighbor. Along the way, Chinese will convert the Muslim world to Christianity, thereby becoming America's best ally against radical Islam.

The author, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, has spent years interviewing experts from China, Europe and the United States, and he has made extensive secret visits to house churches (unofficial Christian meeting places) and underground Catholic churches. He recounts tales of the early Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, the arrival of the first Protestants in the late 1800s, the communist purge in 1949 and the revival that followed the 1979 reforms. In the process, he portrays the amazing struggle of brave Chinese Christians who have risked imprisonment, beatings and death to practice their faith.

Mr. Aikman says that Christianity has been growing at a staggering speed since China relaxed its controls in 1979. There are close to 80 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics, about four times official figures. Ironically, there were only about four million Christians when the communists came to power in 1949, and set out to wipe out religion.

Despite outside images of Christianity weighed down by communist chains, "Jesus in Beijing" portrays a church that is alive and kicking, albeit under pressure from the government. While Christianity has until recently been strongest in the countryside, the book says it is stretching its tentacles into urban areas and the middle class. There may be Christians embedded in the ranks of the People's Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party.

Even former President Jiang Zemin might have Christian leanings. A reliable source tells Mr. Aikman of a dinner at the home of a senior party official just before Mr. Jiang began to formally relinquish the reins of power in November 2002. When a guest asks Mr. Jiang what he would do if he could make one final decree before leaving office, he replies with a broad smile, "I would make Christianity the official religion of China."

Unfortunately, Mr. Aikman, an evangelical Christian, makes no attempt to be impartial, either theologically or politically. The result is a mixture of colorful observations and anecdotes alongside some hard-to-believe stories and arguments.

For one, "Jesus in Beijing" smacks of both American and Christian self-righteousness. With no trace of modesty, the author predicts that "China's moment of its greatest achievement -- and the most beneficial to the rest of the world -- may just lie ahead. That moment may occur when the Chinese dragon is tamed by the power of the Christian lamb." He explains that Christianity is growing at a time when there is a massive ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Marxism-Leninism. He sees Christianity, "a powerful ingredient in the global pre-eminence of Western civilization," as filling that vacuum, and possibly guiding China's pathway into the 21st century.

At the current rate of growth, Mr. Aikman predicts that Christians could account for 20-30% of the Chinese population within three decades. If that happens, he is almost certain that a Christian view of the world will be dominant within the political and cultural establishment, and also possibly within senior military circles. This Augustinian worldview includes a "profound sense of restraint, justice, and order in the wielding of state power."

The book argues that Chinese Christians are strongly pro-American, and so a Christianized China will be more likely to see eye-to-eye with the U.S. on many international issues. A Christianized China therefore "may spend less time thinking of ways to outmaneuver and neutralize the U.S. than the military strategists of the current regime." It might also make a better effort to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Aikman's most amazing revelation is that a Chinese Christian army is poised to convert the entire Muslim world. Chinese Christians shoulder a "burden" not just for China, but also to evangelize the Muslim world. He argues that the government of this Christian China, which is also pro-Israel, will make the world safe for Chinese missionary endeavors, "especially within the Islamic domains." Thus, "A Christianized China will change the face not just of Christendom worldwide, but potentially of the world of Islam."

To be fair, this is not just wild talk by a few zealots. Various house church leaders around the country communicate this Chinese burden to Mr. Aikman. As one believer tells the author, Chinese believers will "play a major role in the circumnavigation of the teachings of Jesus back to the Middle East, and onward to the West."

Mr. Aikman is told that the Muslim religion "is the biggest obstacle on the road back to Jerusalem." Church leaders talk of sending 100,000 proselytizers to Muslim countries. There may already be several hundred Chinese house church Christians -- engineers, professionals and laborers -- already embedded in the Middle East. Seminaries are training missionaries to work in the Muslim world.

While Mr. Aikman claims that foreign missionaries are playing a supportive role in China's Christian movement, his anecdotes give foreigners a profound importance. Of the estimated 2,400 foreigners who attend services at the popular Beijing International Christian Fellowship each week, Mr. Aikman guesses that 40-50% are in China "to advance the cause of Christianity among the Chinese." He says that almost every young urban Christian he has met came to the faith via a foreign English teacher, and some were baptized in foreigners' bathtubs.

The book introduces Dennis Balcombe -- well-known for his undercover work with the house church movement -- as one of the "most gifted" Christians working in China. Mr. Balcombe may be a hero to some house church Christians, but Mr. Aikman fails to mention that many fellow missionaries view him as a grandstander who thumbs his nose at the government in ways that have had bad consequences for Chinese believers. Some say Mr. Balcombe endangers Chinese, who often end up in jail for worshipping with him, while he makes a daring escape. In one instance, Mr. Balcombe is spirited away on the back of a bicycle disguised as a peasant woman. The next day police arrest 150 Chinese Christians who have nowhere to run.

But Mr. Aikman's depiction of foreigners in China is not the only place where the author's analysis strays away from objective judgment. Mr. Aikman reports miracles as matter of fact, without even a trace of skepticism. For example, there is the handcuffed Christian who is paraded to the parapet of a bridge, where he expects to be thrown into the water. The man prays furiously and a storm suddenly whips up. The police, apparently afraid to get wet, call things off. In other anecdotes, medicine sales decline drastically after large numbers of villagers experience miraculous cures through prayer.

When God personally told Christian leader Mark Ma -- in a lengthy conversation that's printed verbatim in the book -- that he should "preach the Gospel all the way back to Jerusalem," Mr. Ma "got into an argument with the Almighty," complaining "the Mohammedans are the hardest of all peoples to reach with the Gospel." God replied that the Chinese are stubborn too, but have been "conquered by the Gospel." Mr. Aikman says the phenomenon of Christians claiming to hear an audible voice is actually not all that rare. To prove this, he recounts a tale of two Christians -- one American and one British -- who tell him that they too hear God talking. Case settled.

Mr. Aikman clearly has extensive experience and knowledge on the subject, but this is a disappointing effort. A book about the amazing changes being effected by Christians in China would have benefited from a dose of objectivity.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney