Saturday, October 08, 2005

I just finished reading a book I've had my eyes on for a few years now - The Jesus Sutras. Very interesting stuff. It tells the story of Christianity in China, at least part of it. Apparently, as far back as seventh century, missionaries from the Middle East made their way to China with the story of Jesus. The book focuses primarily on translations of some scrolls that were discovered several decades ago. In these, Jesus' own teachings are found, at times intermixed with Taoist and some Buddhist teachings.

While it was exciting for me to read how far back the gospel had penetrated China, it was a bit troubling to see the degree to which the culture and especially the philosophical and religious thinking were integrated. For example, the notions of karma and reincarnation are affirmed in these teachings, except that Jesus is described as the one who can release people from the wheel of constant rebirth.

The reason I wanted to read the book, though, was that I wanted a perspective on how the message of Jesus can be changed when it is inserted into a culture. My point was not to criticize the Christians of seventh and eighth century China, as much as to see the degree to which my own culture has done similar things with the gospel. If the teachings of Jesus were understood within the context of the Tao Te Ching, then they are now also being understood within the context of the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. The issue is the degree to which essential scriptural doctrine is messed with in way that changes the gospel itself.

I've also been dabbling in a book by Stanley Hauerwas called, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible From Captivity to America. I'm not very far in, but I'm interested to see where it goes, especially reading it alongside this other book. Hauerwas wrote his book in 1993 - so it was pre-September 11, pre-Gulf War II.

The other interesting tidbit is that I got a call a couple of days ago, asking me to preach in a Chinese church in Seattle. That should be interesting.

posted by Steve at 2:23 PM
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Anonymous daniel commented at 12:22 AM~  

Hi. I just happened to finish reading The Jesus Sutras also. I just wanted to let you know that I kind of came out of it with different conclusions than your own.

I think that this early Christian mission to China was extremely successful in contextualizing the gospel to the pluralistic ancient Chinese culture. They were different enough to provide an alternative to the fear that drove the Taoism, Shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.; but knowledgable enough about the worldview and belief structure to be relevant.

For me, this provided a challenge. How do we best contextualize the gospel to this culture in our postmodern age? Are there elements that need to be rethought - or dropped altogether - from our vocabulary of what we tend to consider important?

"In essentials - unity;
In non-essentials - liberty;
In all things - love."

I wrote about the Sutras here:

Blogger Steve commented at 9:19 AM~  

Thanks for dropping by Daniel. I just read your post, and liked the way you paired up Bono's quote with thoughts on The Jesus Sutras. I appreciate and agree with your take on how the Christian monks effectively contextualized the gospel. Some of their teachings do seem to stretch a bit too far, though (in my opinion). But again, my intention in reading was more to gain perspective on how American culture has done the same thing, and to think about how to appropriately contextualize the gospel in the here and now.

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I'm Steve Lewis. This used to be my blogging home. My online home is now at When this blog was my active online home, I lived in Seattle. Now I live in London, UK. I follow Jesus (poorly most of the time), worship simply, read a lot, watch culture, go to school, listen to music, write, enjoy art, and drink a lot of coffee.
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