Book review: Christianity in East and Southeast Asia

Reviewed by Wilson McMahon
Academic Dean of Koinonia Theological Seminary

Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 48


Christianity in East and Southeast Asia
Kenneth R. Ross, Francis D. Alvarez, and Todd M. Johnson, eds.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. ISBN 978-1474451604. 568pp.

This volume is the latest publication in the Edinburgh Companions to Global Christianity series, which builds upon the success of the Atlas of Global Christianity, 1910–2010. It focuses on a region of the world in which Christianity, in the past fifty years, has been the fastest growing religion—increasing from five to twelve percent of the total population—while remaining a small segment of the population in the majority of countries.

Following an introductory section that provides a demographic profile of Christianity in the region and a preparatory essay, the book is divided into three major sections. The first is an analysis of Christianity within each country in the region. The second examines the origins and current strength of the major Christian traditions within East and South East Asia. And the third is a collection of ten essays on vital twenty-first century themes pertaining to Christianity in this part of the world.

The “Countries” and “Christian Traditions” sections are well researched, and the combination of text with data from the World Christian Database (WCD) makes each chapter a valuable resource for any student. The inclusion of three chapters on China is particularly helpful, given the size and diversity of Christianity within this nation, and given the new modus vivendi that all forms of Chinese Christianity are currently trying to negotiate with the Chinese state.

For this reviewer, “Key Themes” is the strongest section of the book. Each of these chapters provide the reader with genuinely compelling insights on how these themes are currently defining Christianity in this region in the twenty-first century. The chapter by Sebastian Kim entitled “Social and Political Context” is particularly good and reminds the reader that in every East or Southeast Asian nation, Christians have had to work out some kind of arrangement with state actors, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, in order to create public space for their presence and their message. No government in this part of the world has ever been indifferent to the place that religion plays in the life of its people.

There are some features of the book that niggle with this reviewer, particularly when it comes to the presentation of data. The data concerning Christianity in each country is presented in terms of the percentage each Christian tradition contributes to the national population. This works well for nations that are largely mono-cultural, but a more nuanced presentation of the data would benefit our understanding of how Christianity is doing in more multi-cultural contexts. For instance, we are repeatedly told in the chapter on Myanmar that Christianity has grown virulently among the ethnic minority groups of that nation. Yet, because of the one-dimensional way in which the data is presented, we do not know what percentage of which of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities are Christian. All we know is that Christianity accounts for eight percent of the national population (146).

In addition, the established practice of dividing all non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Christians into Anglicans, Independents, Protestants, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals feels decidedly unsatisfactory in numerous places and are categories clearly ignored by some authors. For instance, Kang San Tan’s chapter on “Evangelicals” states that “Evangelicalism finds expression in the region through such denominations as Anglicans, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Methodist” (323), despite the fact that all of these groups are separated from Evangelicals within the WCD statistics. Tan also refers to the scandals that rocked the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul in 2014, as an example of “Evangelicals” behaving badly (324), while Julie Ma refers to the same church as a well-known “Pentecostal mega-church” in her chapter on Pentecostals and Charismatics (340).

Nevertheless, these are minor issues in what is an otherwise excellent publication in every department, and a text that will well serve the student of World Christianity at every level. This reviewer’s highlight from the book is the opening chapter by Francis D. Alvarez. Written in easy, uncomplicated prose, this first-rate introductory essay manages to distil the diversity, breadth, and faith commitment of Christianity within the region. Alvarez succeeds where many have tried and failed in the past by refusing to be an advocate for either the traditional or postcolonial ideology. He simply reminds his readers that “Christianity is not foreign to Asian Christians anymore.… Though with Western features, Asian Christianity need not be ashamed of the faith we have fathered or mothered” (19).

Another version of this review was published in Studies in World Christianity 27, no. 2 (2021): 19496.

Picture of Written by Wilson McMahon
Written by Wilson McMahon

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