Chinese Theology: Text and Context, written by Chloë Starr

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  • 1 Divinity School of Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Chinese Theology: Text and Context. New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2016. Pp. xiii + 373 (including notes and index). $ 50.

In recent decades, theologians of the global South have raised the need for a “fourth self”: self-theologizing. Chloë Starr shows how – in the Chinese context, at least – such a fourth self, a contextually engaged Chinese theology, has been gradually emerging over the past several centuries.

Starr, a Yale Divinity School-based scholar from the u.k., came to theology by way of studying Chinese and East Asian languages and literature. This background gives her a proficiency in Chinese equaled by few Western scholars, and it also shapes her central concern – the textual character and context of Chinese theological production. Starr’s study highlights particular dilemmas of theologians from the sixteenth century to the present on how to name God in Chinese; or how to textually transmit this foreign faith into a Chinese context effectively and meaningfully. Many of these theologians used classical Chinese texts to engage with the Christian tradition, and one of the significant contributions of her study is the close attention she pays to the textual forms and literary characteristics of the writings she analyzes.

Starr’s study covers both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians, who used – in marked difference to traditional Western systematic-theological production – a variety of genres, including dialogues, notes, biographies, interviews, songs and blogs. This shows the basically relational character of Chinese theology, that is, a theological production that emerges from concrete dialogue with the community. The book starts from the Roman Catholic theology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Michele Ruggieri, Matteo Ricci, and Li Jiubiao), and continues with three figures from modern times: Zhao Zichen, maybe the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century; his contemporary, the Jesuit Xu Zongze, who, as an editor of a Catholic journal, assumed what we would nowadays call the role of a public theologian; and another contemporary, Wu Leichuan, who shows strong influences from the social gospel tradition.

Among the most recent theologians Starr discusses are K.H. Ting, sometimes called the father of the modern Chinese Protestant state church, and Yang Huilin, an academic (rather than confessional) theologian whose intellectual quest for meaning brought him to the study of theology. A final chapter introduces the reader to a few theologians of recent years: the hymn writer Lü Xiaomin, whose numerous songs are popular both in official and independent churches; the prolific writer Wang Yi, who regularly publishes through his microblog; and Yu Jie, whose interviews of Christian dissidents and house-church leaders complete the image of how Christian theology is produced in the present-day Chinese context. Interspersed are several chapters (chapters 2, 6, and 8) on the socio-political and cultural contexts of the Republican era, the early Mao years, and the post-1980 period.

The book’s singular title – “Chinese theology” – might lead the reader to expect a conclusive synthesis. However, the stated aim of the book is not to offer a complete compendium of Chinese theology. Starr deliberately focuses on theologians who engaged with Chinese philosophical, religious, cultural, or socio-political contexts and textual traditions. Readers will perhaps miss arguably equally important theologians like Ni Tuosheng or Wang Mingdao, who are mentioned only as counterparts of Wu Leichuan (Ni) or Ting (Wang). This exclusion may be debated: religious opposition to culture is indeed part of a long tradition of Chinese religious counterculturalism. Still, these separatist and potentially fundamentalist theologians reflect the Chinese context rather than actively engage with it.

The compendium is a key study on Chinese theological texts and a masterly work. Reading it, however, requires an already solid knowledge of the Chinese historical, cultural, and religious contexts. Readers would benefit from having at hand the various texts Starr discusses in order to better follow her argument.

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