Saturday, August 18, 2007

Worldly Asceticism and Chinese Christians

Here's a funny factoid (I'm getting this from memory and haven't relocated the source). At Yale, the Buddhist club is entirely white in membership, while Campus Crusade is 60% Asian.

Something of the background to this comes from a book I read a while ago: Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities by Fenggang Yang. The writer's story itself is fascinating. Like Jim Ault, he went to a Christian church (here's their web page) to do sociology and ended up being converted. Unlike Ault, who became a documentary film maker, Yang eventually got a respectable academic job (more here), and perhaps for that reason his book lacks the luminescent beauty of Spirit and Flesh -- academia is pretty tough on good story telling.

The book was based on his work in an independent evangelical church for ethnic Chinese in the DC area (main services are in Mandarin with English and Cantonese translation and a separate earlier service in English). His aim was to solve this puzzle: if Chinese immigrants to the US are interested in preserving their culture, why do they convert to Christianity, especially in the narrow evangelical form? And if they are interested in assimilating, why do they attend a Chinese church, instead of a mainstream American one?

Without denying that conversion is first and foremost a matter of the Spirit (he's a Christian, remember?), he makes a strong case that the church he studied saw Chinese Christians neither as assimilating, nor as not assimilating, but rather constructing an "adhesive identity" in which their Christianity functions as a means of identifying with the best of both American and Chinese identities and rejecting what is evil in both.

With regard to Chinese identity, as immigrants (many have crossed multiple boundaries, such as mainland to Taiwan, Taiwan to SE Asia, SE Asia to USA, and so on), they find their Chinese ethical beliefs relativized -- Christianity offers a way to re-anchor them in a transcendent moral framework. Yang summarizes:

Religious conversion in postmodern pluralism can be an act of preserving traditional culture. Postmodern pluralism has a tendency to relativize traditions. The Chinese highly value their cultural traditions, especially Confucian moral values, but traditionalism alone cannot justify the authority of such a system of ethics.* These Chinese immigrants find a good match between Confucian moral values and evangelical Christian beliefs, and the conservative Chinese faith provides an absolute foundation for their cherished social ethics. Therefore, religious conversion to evangelical Christianity indeed helps these people to maintain their Chinese identity. Without the institution of the Christian church, the preservation of traditional Chinese culture could have been more difficult within postmodern pluralism (pp. 198-99).

Christian universalism is, he concludes, constructive not destructive of traditional Chinese culture -- albeit only when that culture is understood as rejecting Buddhism and other explicitly religious elements. "While universalism is achieved, particularism is also affirmed."

Their Christian faith also affirms their American identity. The church Yang studied is a conservative Christian one, one that strongly affirms the basic story of conservative Protestantism: America was built on Christian principles, but has gone astray through forgetting those principles. As one Taiwanese writer wrote in the church newsletter:

The founding spirit of the USA is originated from Christian doctrines. American laws and the humanitarian spirit all have roots in Christianity. Internally this made the American social political system healthy, the nation strong, and the people prosperous. Internationally, then, the USA can advance her military, political, and economic developments, and has become the leader of the free world (p. 123).

A guest pastor preached in Chinese:

We have to work hard to uphold God's words in America . . . We have seen the decline of the strength of the U.S. and the emptiness of American churches. We should have a sense of responsibility for this nation and for all peoples in the world. We must take up the burden to evangelize all peoples in America and the world, not just the Chinese (p. 125).

Statements like this are found all over conservative Protestantism in the USA, but they have added significance here in being written and spoken in a ethnic Chinese church, to an ethnic Chinese audience, and even in Chinese. The implication is clear: Chinese Christians can know and embody the spirit of our founding fathers better than most Americans do -- because they are Christians .

Central to this adhesive identity is the "worldly asceticism" of this generally high-achieving Chinese congregation, embodied in success, thrift, temperance (teetotalling), and sexual restraint and marital fidelity. Yet these "Protestant" values, Yang typically finds enunciated most explicitly in contrast to the surrounding American society, indeed in contrast to the American church.

Here's a story about thrift from comments at a Board meeting:

American society is a consumerist society. This consumerism has influenced our American-born kids. They want to buy this and buy that without thinking of necessity. The kids are indulged too much (p. 110).

And when the pastor bought a house that cost $350,000, and received a non-interest loan from the church, he was criticized"

We should keep expenditures within the limits of income 量入爲出。This is a good Chinese tradition. A good Christian should follow this principle even beeter. When you take up a huge financial burden [like Pastor Tang did], how could you live in peace and focus on ministries for the Lord (p. 111).

"Pastor Tang" was voted out in 1995.

In discussing sexual restraint, Yang quotes a mother of three teenagers:

I was worried for my second son. He is a high school student. The teens fellowship group [which is mostly English-speaking ABC's or American Born Chinese] once was on the edge of becoming a social and dating club. Several parents were worried about this when they sensed the tendencies, but we didn't know what we could do. These are youth at a rebellious age in this free American society. But God is really wonderful. Right then the assistant pastor [who was a white American] gave a sermon: "True Love Waits." It was an excellent sermon. My boy understood the preaching very well and liked it very much. The pastor asked these young people to make a commitment to God, write it down, and keep if for themselves, that they would wait for the true love. After that the teens fellowship returned to normal (p. 113).

Yet American churches can also a source of corruption. One guest preacher told a story about how a big church near a university campus invited two Asian student Christian fellowships (one Chinese and one Indian) to have a joint activity at church. The Chinese and Asian Indians students made the food while the Americans would prepare the program:

The food was of course very delicious, but the program was just unbelievable. The host church provided bingo games -- a kind of gambling -- and belly dancing. During the dance by a half-nude woman, the Christian students were so embarrassed that they all tried to hide their heads. It was just so awkward.

This is the problem of American churches. They have become empty physically and spiritually. . . In these seminaries the Bible is taught as not credible or believable. There is no prayer. Professors of theology smoke in the class and grow ponytail hair. How could these people speak God's words? . . . All failures of America today are because of their rejection of God
(pp. 123-24).

Here's a story about success, from a pastor's sermon as paraphrased by Yang:

A Chinese family used to attend an American church. The parents became unhappy about their daughter's getting some B grades in school. When they asked about it, the girl replied, 'I have done my best.' When they asked again, she ruffled, 'I am doing better than many of my friends in school and church. They get C's and B's but their parents still love them without a fuss. Why are you so harsh on me.' The daughter felt disappointed to be Chinese, and the parents felt helpless to respond. Later they found a Chinese church and switched there. After a while, the girl came to tell her parents, 'Compared with other parents in the church, you are not really harsh.' Her gradual change pleased the parents (p. 116).

Yang comments: "A changed reference group and her growing Chinese identity, nurtured in the Chinese church, helped this girl to excel in school."

He also quotes a popular woman speaker in Chinese churches, who uses the American ideas of pride, self-confidence, and "dare to be different" in distinctly, well, different, ways:

"Having American friends is necessary for your kids, but only to a certain degree. . . . Some Chinese children become problem teenagers because they are too Americanized. Don't say 'We must immerse ourselves in American society.' What is American society. Student who are participating in math contests are seen as nerds by [white] American girls. We need to teach our kinds 'Dare to be different.' Teach them to have self-confidence about what they do and be proud of what they are. We must have rules. For example, don't allow your kids to stay overnight with other kids."

She went on to say that white American parents, including those who attend churches, often have low expectations of their children. They ask their children to "do your best," which is often only an excuse for failure. Mixing with such children could bring bad influences on Chinese children. She suggested that it would be more desirable to mix with children of immigrants, such as Asian Indians or Koreans, because they were more conservative in moral values. Better yet, she suggested, bring your children to the Chinese church:

"It is necessary to have friends after school . . . The Chinese church provides this. In the fellowship group it is easier to provide such an environment. We Chinese have a proverb, 'He who stays near vermillion gets stained red, and he who stays near ink gets stained black' 近朱者赤,近墨者黑。Mencius's mother moved three times 孟母三遷 [in order to have good neighbors for her child]. It is very important to have proper friends (pp. 115-16).

Again as Yang points out, they defend their selective distance from American society not just in terms of preserving Chinese traditions, but also in terms of adhering to universal Christian values. "The Chinese church is a plausible structure that helps these immigrant and their children maintain their distinctive value system.

But it is important not to exaggerate the degree of separation . Speakers have to exhort Chinese parents to find Chinese (or at least Asian) friends for their children because structural integration is so universally presumed. Measurable success in mainstream American society is a universal goal. Yang wrote:

Why should one succeed? What is the purpose of success? This would be an important research question. However, I could not even ask this question directly in my interviews because it would sound silly or out of place. Success is a goal that is taken for granted (p. 108).

(He does conclude that success is seen as a way to give glory to God and especially to prove to non-Christian Chinese that Christians are not ignorant or supersititious.)

Elsewhere he writes:

New Chinese immigrants generally trust the educations system, so they send their children to public schools and prestigious universities; they trust the economic system, so they work hard and invest wisely to gain tangible rewards; they trust the socio-legal systems, so they seek gradual changes toward equality. However, they do not trust the media and entertainment industry for encouraging liberal moral values and unconventional lifestyles (p. 197).

This overall trust in American institutions is a rather striking difference between Chinese conservative Protestants and white conservative Protestants, who are notoriously suspicious of these institutions.

I find a few things particularly interesting about this picture:

1) the degree to which Chinese-American Christians have come to treat Christianity as the fulfillment of the Law -- the Confucian law. This model, of Christianity being the only way to preserve the spirit of what I call the "archaic law" in modern society, is something they are trying to live out right now.

As he notes on pp. 147-48, the church newsletter is called "Living Waters" and has John 7:37-38 -- but the first issue also had on the mast-head a poem by the famous Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi:

A square pond opens up like a mirror;
In it glowing light and white clouds are waving together.
No wonder this lagoon is so clear
Because from the springhead comes the living water.



Lovely, isn't it? And to make it better, the title is "Afterthoughts on reading the Book." OK, well, the book he meant wasn't the Gospel, but then again, the book David meant technically wasn't the Gospel either -- although the Gospel was found in it.

2) In emphasizing thrift and frugality and "worldly asceticism" more generally, I think Yang's Chinese church members have really identified an area where American churches have strayed far from the Weberian Protestant ethic and the teaching inculcated in Proverbs. I was embarrassed by the American Christian of those stories. If Americans were straying from this to sell all they have to the poor that would be one thing, but they are instead straying from this to buy McMansions, electronic gadgets, closets full of clothes, and endless nights out at restaurants. I don't usually do the moral scold thing (at least I try not to) but this is really worth scolding about.

What did John Wesley say? "Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can." Maybe it's a dangerous phrase, because most people seem to think "Well, I'll work on that first one, and maybe the second, and when I've got 'em down cold, I'll see about the third", but if you do all three, not just one or two, you will do good for your own soul and others'.

3) Their relentless pursuit of success I am less certain about, although with it goes the trust in mainstream institutions. Both are quite different from many streams in American evangelical-dom in which meritocratic success seems to happen if at all, by chance. Are Yang's church members gaining the world to lose their soul? Let us hope not -- but the possibility can't be denied. And let us hope that their trust, which is in itself always a good thing, will be not be betrayed. I don't think anyone has ever said it before, but I do believe "It is better to have trusted and been betrayed, than to have never trusted at all."

4) Their way of understanding Christian universalism as fulfilling and completing both their Chinese and their American identity is worth considering, regardless of one's ethnic or national origin. "Adhesive identity" as Yang says makes one comfortable in more than one identity and more than one place. This could be a fruitful way of phrasing Paul's conception of the simultaneously Jewish-Gentile Christian church, as I've tried to describe it here. The New Testament is bi-cultural and one can reasonable expect that certain insights in it are best achieved by those who are likewise bi-cultural.

God grant that this will be the motto for this Chinese church's Confucianism and Americanism:

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation
I understand more than the aged, for I keep Your precepts (Ps. 119:99-100).

*Why not? Traditionalism here is basically "Confucianism" and that is unable to serve as a transcendent justification for three reasons: 1) Confucianism in China itself was attacked as being part of the old "feudal" system -- many reflective Chinese find it no longer tenable purely on its own as a basis for ethical behavior; 2) Confucianism is above all a system of social and political ethics and the American system is not Confucian; and 3) the Chinese he studied are professionally and occupationally thoroughly integrated into American life and do not want to be in a traditionalist enclave.

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