This post is important. If you keep up with my journey, read this because what is going on with my ministry to Chinese students is becoming a major chapter in the deconstruction of my American Evangelicalism.
You didn’t like that did you? I don’t like it either. “American Christian” sounds idolatrous. It makes me want to hit the delete key and retype something like “a Christian, who happens to be an American.”
But I’m an American Christian. Whether I like it or not. I live in an American culture that has delivered Christ to me in the swaddling clothes of American religion, American culture, American values, the American imagination, American education, American language, American assumptions and an American view of reality.
To declare myself independent from this is to be purposely ignorant and naively arrogant. Every time I read the New Testament, I am an American reading and interpreting that New Testament. When I go to church, I am an American. When I apply my understanding of the gospel, I do it as an American.
I’m not a blank slate. I don’t supernaturally shed my cultural and intellectual skin when I think “Christianly.”Â I am not free from all that came before me, all that surrounds me or all that is within me.
This has nothing to do with the truth and veracity of the gospel. It has everything to do with honestly recognizing that we are thoroughly, deeply and continually swimming in the water of Americanism. It has to do with what I and other American Christians present to the world as the life that follows and obeys Christ.
As most of my readers know, the school where I work, preach and teach the Bible is well-populated with international students. We’ve always had a lot of Africans, but recently we’ve gained a lot of Asians. Currently, we have Japanese, Mongolian, Korean, Thai and Chinese students. Working with these students is, of course, an honor and a privilege, but it is also a revealing and stimulating experience for coming to appreciate the presence of culture in my Christianity.
I am increasingly realizing truths about my own culture as it is contrasted with these Asian and African students. This year, I am learning disturbing lessons about the American Christianity that I believe and present.
For example, it is increasingly clear to me that many of our Asian students obviously find most of our classes to be undemanding, informal and far from rigorous when compared to their own educational experiences in their own countries. From my own experience in American public and private schools, we are certainly above average in rigor, and generally demanding for almost all our American students. The fact is, however, that our school is an American school, and we have shaped what we do around the American Christian culture in which we live.
What is that culture? Our American students are, overwhelmingly, uninterested in education and tolerate it only as a requirement to experience other things. Their “resting state” is one of disrespect and boredom; their major interest is in being entertained. Their thoughts about the future are dominated by cultural myths and fantasies. Our Asian students, with some exceptions, work in class and out, are intense in their devotion to study, and are very competitive and self-disciplined in achieving excellence on the highest level. They approach everything about education differently than 95% of our American students.
A small, but noticeable, difference has to do with appearance. Many of our Asian students are always well-dressed. Their fashion tastes are contemporary and aware of the latest trends, but they are always dressed neatly and nicely (with the occasional eccentricity, I assure you.) Their pants are not sagging. Their shirts do not have offensive or negative messages. Hip Hop and Gangsta culture has almost no discernible appeal to them…unless they have been in the states long enough to begin to be Americanized.
For years, we’ve observed that our internationals have deep devotion to family, respect for adults, natural and appropriate manners, a strong work ethic and a constant position of humility towards others. In any area of our experiences- both positive and negative- our internationals are impressive when compared to American students. (In all fairness, our internationals generally don’t come to us for the same reasons as our American students, but hardly accounts for the differences we see.)
This year, we have been particularly impressed with our communist Chinese students. Name an area of excellence, and they are surpassing it. Having them in class or on the student work program is like having mature 22 year olds in class alongside “kids”. This experience with our 8 Chinese students has been so affecting, that some of us are starting to discuss it.
It’s impossible to know and talk with these Chinese students without catching their conviction in the superiority of their communist culture. As something of a student of Asian history, I understand how our Chinese students differ from other Asians in their cultural interactions with others. They do have a historical conviction of the superiority of their culture, and they see little need to demonstrate that to outsiders. To the Chinese, there is little doubt that their culture will be proven to be superior to all others.
Further, it is impossible to know these students without seeing that the Chinese communist revolution- with all its many, many failures and evils- is producing a generation of young people who have remarkable values, ethics, loyalty and devotion to their culture. I see little evidence in these students of much for a resistance movement to work with.
All of these students are atheists, and none are familiar with Christianity, but when we do talk about the area of core beliefs, they are quick to witness to the influence of their families and their country. They want to return to China and live for the benefit of their families and country. They are endlessly grateful to their country and, unlike some internationals, have no reluctance to say where they want to return and live.
I’ve concluded that Mao may have been a poor communist, but he was a brilliant Confucian. Our Chinese students demonstrate so many of the virtues of Confucius, and are clearly bemused at what they see in our American culture. No longer are they in awe of the capitalism of our country. Our students come from strongly capitalistic areas. (I took one student to a sub shop, and he said the sandwich was good, but far too expensive.) They want to make major contributions to their society and to find materialistic success, but they are not enamored with the vices and immaturities of their peers in the declining youth culture of America.
In many ways, these Chinese students are a revelation of American decline and a preview of future Chinese cultural success. China may not be our military equal, and their government may be repressive, but the products of a culture are an indication of where things are going. These 8 Chinese students will not go to college and run up credit cards, wreck the car, stay drunk, fail classes and waste their time. They will soon be engineers, pilots, doctors and scientists; leaders in their field.
And I doubt, very seriously, that they will be Christians. Not because I haven’t tried to live, teach and preach the Gospel. I have, and will continue to do so as will all of the Christians on our campus.
I doubt they will become Christians because they are seeing American Christianity, and it’s far more American than Christian. They’ve helped me to see my own cultural religion, and it’s been a disturbing revelation.
When they attend chapel, they frequently hear moralistic preaching. Their own Confucian and Maoist culture gives them morals and moralism, and produces a far more moral person than their typical American peer. They hear sermons on being a good person, staying off drugs, not having sex and staying in school. They were doing all this when they came here and will do it when they leave.
They see American Christians without a Bible most of the time. We have few spiritual disciplines and are hungry and thirsty for the things our culture values more than the gifts and callings of Christ. They hear us talk about Jesus, but the Jesus we talk about is not compelling enough to cause us to live truly sacrificial or revolutionary lives. I’ve noticed this with other Asians as well. When they hear us talking about our religion, they expect to see the same holiness and devotion they see in Buddhist monks, but in American Christians they simply see another American, with a slightly different set of consumer interests. Same American. Different t-shirt slogan. Our spirituality is clearly inferior.
My Chinese students are probably put off- or just bored silly- by most of what we call worship, because I doubt that it is anywhere near as focused and relevant as their own cultural parallels. Our worship songs are frequently romantic and self-serving. We have little genuineness and little mystery. We talk and talk and talk and talk, but have little to show for it in our lives.
Don’t get me wrong. Our students have received many acts of kindness and generosity from Christians on our campus. They’ve received Bibles, gifts, food and hospitality. We’ve loved them and given all we can to them. They love us and I have no doubt they’ve seen Christ many times in many Christians.
But they have also seen American Christianity up close. They see it through the filter of their own cultural lenses and presuppositions, but I believe most of what is there to be seen is American culture and not the Kingdom of God that Jesus brought, lived and taught. We are American Christians, and we’re practicing an anemic, weak, flaccid form of Christianity that, for our Chinese students, makes Mao look like the superior savior and Chinese virtues as the superior way.
Recently, my students wrote essays on lessons from the life of Joseph. Now Joseph is a story that has tremendous middle eastern and asian appeal because of its relation to wisdom literature, and it is a story where God is more in the background than in most of the Pentateuchal narratives. My Chinese student wrote a long essay, entirely interpreting the story as an example of Confucian virtues. His rare mentions of God were only in reference to Joseph’s being different from the Egyptians.
I believe this is much of what my Chinese students are experiencing. They are interpreting their American experience through the grid of their own worldview. Where the God of the Bible should intrude into that worldview, they simply don’t see him at all. They see no compelling reason to question what they have been taught in their own culture, and little compelling reason to consider the “revolutionary” Jesus they see and hear about from their American friends. What revolution? What superiority and alternative culture?
The Holy Spirit has brought tens of millions to faith in China. There is a spiritual hunger in that country and God is at work there. But I can understand why that is happening in China, and not happening here in the west. The Chinese church is unafraid to suffer. It does not express itself by embracing the worst of a consumer culture and calling it discipleship. It is a church with intensity, contrast and a true witness to its culture. It is completely unlike the church in America and the west. Jesus is at home in his church in China. Here, he must become a suburban, American Jesus that allows us to be American Christians.
My prayer, every day, is that these students will not accept American Christianity, but will be “seeded” by the Spirit to come to faith in Jesus Christ in the context that will cause them to live for Christ the rest of their lives. I want them to come to Christ and be prepared for the hard way of resisting the powerful, dominant, confident revolution of Mao. I am praying they follow the Lord Jesus into the church in China, and if that means they don’t buy the American Jesus at all, so be it.
The true revolutionary is Jesus, and the true revolution is his Kingdom. The Spirit opens eyes and hearts to those transforming realities. My Chinese experience this year shows me the desperate need for reformation and revival in American Christianity. Is there any hope for us? Should there be? Should we be praying that the torch will pass to a church that knows what it is to be in the world, but not of the world?
This opportunity to evangelize Chinese students may last one year, or many more. The Spirit has already blessed me through it. I pray that the Spirit is working in my Chinese friends as well.