The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (bjp) and its far-right ideological partner, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (rss) have been pushing their agenda of remaking India into a Hindu Rashtra or a Hindu nation since the former came into power in 2014. This saffronising project has led to an increase in the persecution of religious minorities, especially the Muslims and the Christians. Both communities are viewed as foreign in the bjp’s vision of a Hindu India. The Ghar Wapsi (literally homecoming) programmes conducted by the rss and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (vhp) whereby Muslims and Christians in India are encouraged to “reconvert” to their ancestral religion, Hinduism, and the anti-conversion bills that have been put in place around the country further reflect the government’s oppressive attitude towards Islam and Christianity. While Islam is seen as having been brought in by the sword of the conqueror from Central Asia, Christianity is viewed as a vestige of colonialism, planted in the Indian soil by foreign missionaries as an assault on the nation’s inherently Hindu cultural fabric. In the context of this hegemonic narrative being pushed by a fascist government, Christianity Remade: The Rise of Indian-Initiated Churches by the late theologian Paul Joshua could not have been more timely.
The book focuses on, what he terms, Indian-Initiated Churches (iic s)—revival movements and churches within Indian Christianity that interpret the gospel within uniquely Indian contexts, thus challenging hierarchies within the Indian church and the notion that Christianity remains a foreign import. Joshua gives an overview of Christianity on the subcontinent before the arrival of the European missionaries from the sixteenth century onwards. It is indeed necessary to reiterate the existence of Christianity on Indian soil for almost sixteen hundred years before Vasco da Gama because Christianity is often associated with colonialism and viewed negatively while its life before is overlooked. Joshua acknowledges the shortcomings of Eurocentric missions from the West which viewed themselves as representatives of the church and the rest of the world as their mission field. By doing so, he emphasises the need to study indigenous interpretations of Christianity as opposed to the history of Christianity in India narrated from the perspective of Western missionaries or mission churches in India.
The iic s are grassroots churches with an essentially Indian shape and ethos and emerge in response to particular Indian needs and aspirations. They invoke familiar and indigenous frames of reference and this makes them appealing to the masses. However, they are often dismissed by mainline churches in India which deem them as mere sects. In fact, even the term iic is not widely recognised by theologians and historians of Indian Christianity. This book brings out the transforming potential and creativity of the iic s and their contribution to the shaping of a counter discourse against the hegemonic narrative that dismisses Christianity’s relevance in the Indian context. To do so, the author identifies select iic s for this study that he believes represent and express this subaltern movement within Indian Christianity. Joshua admits there is much diversity among the iic s. Since iic s emerge responding to different socio-cultural contexts, they differ from one another in terms of structure, agenda, and strategy but are united by their efforts to reimagine Christianity in light of their lived experiences and therefore in their breaking away from established churches. Considering the size of India and its cultural diversity as well as the number of iic s that operate on its soil, it is understandable why the author finds it necessary to choose a representative sample for discussion.
Each chapter in the book, barring the introductory ones, discusses a particular iic and the socio-political catalysing event that brought it about like the movement for Indian independence, Christian revivalism, rise of Hindu nationalism, the bhakti movement which can rather reductively be defined as the path of devotion within Hinduism, contemporary urban culture, and the challenge from dominant Hindu spiritual power. Joshua elaborates upon the life and influences of the founders of each of the iic s he cites in order to further contextualise each of these movements. Through the narration of their socio-political and cultural contexts it becomes clear how these iic s creatively engaged with the gospel such that Christianity no longer remained an import from without but became uniquely Indian. In illustrating the ways in which these iic s challenged the western paradigmatic Christianity and its equivalent upheld by the elites of mainline churches in India, the author makes use of the interpretive lens of postcolonial studies. It is a well-known fact that mainstream Christianity in India remains plagued by the caste system despite the fact that many people embraced Christianity in order to escape caste-based prejudice and discrimination. The subaltern’s attempt to make Christianity more relevant to its own context can be understood as a reclamation of the gospel message by the oppressed and an assertion of their identity. In engaging with popular aspirations and fears, the iic s find resonance amidst those suffering persecution and injustice. Joshua succinctly demonstrates how the iic s ultimately empower the subaltern.
The most interesting is perhaps the discussion on the India Bible Mission which the author studies as a part of the subcontinent’s bhakti movement. While Sikhism and Islam’s interaction with bhakti are popularly acknowledged and studied, Christianity is rarely mentioned in the context of bhakti, except in recent scholarship on Christian-Hindu dialogue. Since bhakti comprises of popular devotional practices and piety as opposed to the sophisticated jnana marg (path of knowledge) only available to Brahamanic elites, its philosophies are immensely relevant to the iic s trying to interpret Christianity within an Indian cultural framework for the subaltern and offer them an authentically Indian piety. Joshua quotes bhakti poetry in the chapter to demonstrate this kinship between bhakti and the gospel message. While Joshua is not the first scholar to explore this relationship—Bishop A.J. Appasamy being the first—his extensive bibliography on the bhakti movement goes to show the extent of his research on the subject.
Joshua also rightly criticises the text-centric study of religion which ignores popular art forms and indigenous knowledge systems and instead encourages better engagement with epistemic pluralism. Text-based studies are limiting in their ability to give voice to the subaltern. In fact, study of religion begins with theoretical discussions regarding belief, philosophy, and ritual. The lived reality of any religion is often quite different from its envisioned executive plan but the way religion functions within society is often left up to the sociologist. This book seeks to understand theological interpretation through the study of social practices and in that sense is indeed a bottom-up approach.
Joshua displays great understanding of India’s culturally diverse character, its history, and the multiplicity of traditions within Hinduism. At the same time, he acknowledges the pluralism of Western Christianity instead of treating it as a monolith. His narrative style sometimes tends to read like a classroom lecture but that does not subtract from the lucidity of his writing. Rather, it contributes to his ability to guide his reader through complex issues. Joshua gives an excellent appraisal of the iic s’ efforts to create an in-between identity, one that is both Christian and Indian, a space of cultural hybridity ‘carrying the burden of the meaning of culture […] which cannot be exclusively claimed by either the majority or the minority culture,’1 thus challenging the hegemonic narrative of the majority.
Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 1–2.