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Asia in the Making of Christianity: Conversion, Agency, and Indigeneity, 1600s to the Present

by Richard Fox Young and Jonathan A. Seitz, eds.

—Reviewed by Aminta Arrington, PhD candidate, Cook School of Intercultural Studies, Biola University.

Brill, P.O. Box 9000, 2300 PA, Leiden, The Netherlands, 444 pages, 2013, $150.00.

Reviewed by Aminta Arrington, PhD candidate, Cook School of Intercultural Studies, Biola University.

The history of Christianity in Asia is not to be equated with the history of missions in Asia. This is the central premise running through this edited collection, beginning with the title itself. Although many histories of Christianity in Asia are missionary-focused, “simply the story of how the missionaries got there, how they introduced a ready-made religion, opened churches, and went about catalyzing and galvanizing Asia’s modernization and Westernization,” this book self-consciously seeks to move in the direction of a different kind of story—one in which the Asian converts are the subjects, not the objects. Missionaries are present in these narratives, but in a supporting role; the lead roles are played by the Asian Christians themselves.

“Conversion” is the analytical entry point: conversion of individuals and conversion of groups, historical accounts of conversion and accounts more ethnographic in nature, stories of conversion from Japan and stories from India and stories from many locales in between. In each case, the essays attempt to discover the meaning of conversion from the inside: Conversion, here, is not a successful outcome of missionary strategy, far from it. Conversion is examined within the cultural context in which it occurs, taking into account the rippling effects it then has upon relationships and identity and the social world of the converted.

The essays cover a broad swath of Asia and encompass a 400-year span of history. Moreover, each individual essay, from the tale of a Catholic Korean patriot who assassinated a Japanese statesman in 1909, to the account of how political conditions in Upper Burma made the Kachin receptive to mission Christianity, is situated in its own microcontext. A more tightly focused collection of essays may have been able to put forward a theory of Christian conversion coming from an Asian context. This book makes no such attempt, as the introduction notes.

Despite its vastness in coverage, the book succeeds in what it sets out to do: to examine Christian conversion from an emic standpoint, to investigate what conversion looks like from the inside, and to give full agency to the converted themselves. In Bangladesh, imandars worship Jesus, but use Muslim religious categories and maintain a Muslim identity, viewing Jesus as the “superior prophet.” Seventeenth-century Vietnamese convert to Catholicism because it does what a Vietnamese religion is supposed to do: give supernatural power, particularly effectiveness in healing, over material concerns in this world. Among today’s Garo of India, or among nineteenth-century Chinese of Shandong province, conversion to Christianity means adding Jesus to an existing pantheon of deities. And in India, a Christian novelist re-imagines a conversion that does not produce a rupture with his past.

In every essay, conversion to Christianity transformed the individual or ethnic group discussed. But the point of this volume is that in the process, Christianity was transformed as well. Ultimately, this book is “about Christianity’s own conversion into an Asian religion.”

Check these titles:
Hefner, Robert W., ed. 1993. Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Moffett, Samuel H. 2005. A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. II: 1500-1900. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

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