Kenneth R. Ross, Francis Alvarez, Todd M. Johnson (eds.), Christianity in East and Southeast Asia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020, 568 pp. ISBN: 9781474451604, price: GBP 150.00 (hardback); 9781474451628, GBP 150.00 (e-book).
Christianity has had an undeniable impact on Asian cultures and societies. This interaction significantly transformed the affected culture and societies. Wilfred (2014) famously argued that Asian Christianity presents many new prospects and hopes for global Christianity, especially through its encounter with the ancient religious traditions of the continent, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism.
This edited collection shows some similarities with other books that discuss Christianity in Asia, in particular the Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia (Wilfred 2014). However, unlike that handbook, Christianity in East and Southeast Asia presents an overview—both quantitatively and qualitatively—of Christianity in East and South East Asia. Another interesting point in this book is the observation that churches in the region share many of the experiences of colonialism, conflict, communism, and religious fundamentalism.
A quantitative overview of Christianity in Asia is found in the first part of the book, which is divided into four big parts. The first is the introduction, where two articles take us through the demographics of Christianity in East and South East Asian areas. There Zurlo (p. 4) states that Christianity in East and Southeast Asia (with 282 million adherents, 12 % of region) has a long history reflecting the religious, cultural, political, and socio-economic diversity of the region. In recent decades, Christianity has grown quite significantly in this part of the world. Much of this growth has been in Pentecostal or Charismatic churches, which often takes place among poor and marginalized people.
The introductory part also underscores the importance of Christianity in the area. One of the main reasons is that East and Southeast Asia are home to historical Catholic populations, such as in the Philippines and Vietnam. The Christian populations of both countries are more than 80 % Catholic. The region is also home to more recent Protestant and Independent churches. Independents grew the fastest between 1970 and 2020, from 12 million to 103 million (p. 5). This is a massive growth from the quantitative perspective.
The second part of the introduction guides readers through an academic debate from the qualitative perspective. There Alvarez (p. 17) mentions that while Christianity in East and Southeast Asia manifests Western influence, this does not mean that Christianity is or remains foreign to East and Southeast Asians today. This article shows examples of Christian influence in the areas and their acculturation within local contexts. Many church buildings, for example, have taken on the aesthetics of local architecture. This includes the Phát Diệm Cathedral in Vietnam, built by Father Tran Luc in 1892, which features upturned pagoda roofs crowning Gothic towers. In Thailand, some Catholic churches follow the style of Buddhist temples.
Places like South Korea provide additional focal points for debates on Christianity, identity, and ownership in East Asia. According to Alvarez (p. 18), it was a conscious choice of Koreans not to indigenize church architecture, so that Christianity would be seen as distinct from Shamanism. Today, Korean mega-churches are often compared to their American counterparts. As followers of shamans become increasingly dependent on the powers of their leader, so too can members of a mega-church become inordinately attached to a pastor’s charisma.
The second part of the book contains descriptive articles on every country in East and Southeast Asia that has been influenced by Christianity. These descriptive articles read like handbook entries. Therefore, readers looking for, say, a more comprehensive discussion on Christianity in Indonesia will probably be disappointed. They will need to turn to other sources, such as Aritonang and Steenbrink (2008).
The third part of the book contains several articles on major Christian traditions, discussed chiefly within a contemporary context: between the 1960s and 1990s. One particularly interesting set of observations is the nascent development of philanthropy, a significant rise of ultra-wealthy Asians, as well as a predominant lower-income cluster of churches that contribute in different ways to social development (Lim, p. 308). If Protestants fail to construct a viable Asian Protestant set of social teachings regarding social justice service and evangelism, others will take their place as the rich–poor disparity widens. This phenomenon can also be found in Indonesia, especially after the New Order era.
The fourth part of the books consists of ten different themed articles. Their themes are quite diverse, encapsulating theology, culture, politics, gender, and others. Among these articles, I personally enjoyed the contribution by Wong (pp. 463–73) about the colonial and post-colonial context of Christianity in East and Southeast Asia, which is complex and should not be reduced to a battle to dismantle Western colonialism. It is vital for Christianity in Asia to reposition itself on the Asian plane, rather than looking to the West as its chief referent. This also relates to debates about identity and ownership, especially in the East Asian context.
In the concluding part of the book, Ho (p. 490) attempts to compare the situation in East and Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is more heterogeneous than East Asia. The region has been influenced more heavily by competing Western colonial powers that brought different versions of Christianity, including the Dutch who colonized Indonesia, the Spanish in the Philippines, the French in Indochina, and the British in Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar. In addition, Ho (p. 491) points out that Christianity will continue to spread mainly through indigenized forms. Although all Southeast Asia’s major religions have been imported, only Christianity is seen as Western, while the others are seen as “Asian”, except in the predominantly Catholic countries of Timor-Leste and the Philippines. These different demographics caused the two areas to develop into different directions. Christianity in East Asia, particularly in South Korea, shows how the evangelical movement has rapidly grown over the decades. In Indonesia, by contrast, the growth of indigenized churches such as the GPM (Gereja Protestan Maluku) for the Maluku people and the HKBP (Huriat Kristen Batak Protestan) for the Batak people highlights the importance of indigenization to Christianity.
It is worth making a general remark here: when something is transmitted, it is received in the mode of the receiver rather than the transmitter. Thus, what has been transmitted as Western Christianity has been received as Asian Christianity. Therefore, the ownership of the tradition—both for East and Southeast Asian people—grows stronger when it is passed on intergenerationally.
To conclude, not every article in this book brings something new to the academic discussion of Christianity in East and Southeast Asia, yet the combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches allows for some fresh perspectives on the growth of Christianity in these two areas. This makes the book important to the broader literature on Christianity in Asia.
Aritonang, Jan Sihar and Karel Steenbrink (eds) (2008). A History of Christianity in Indonesia. Leiden: Brill.
Wilfred, Felix (ed.) (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia. New York: Oxford University Press.