How do you imagine the Church in China? Some of us with a vague idea might imagine a tense group huddled together in a front room, all sharing a single copy of the Bible that can be easily hidden at a moment's notice should the secret police decide to pay a visit.
A reading of Paul Golf and Pastor Lee's book gives the impression that while this image had some foundation in truth in the past and is true in some places today, the whole picture is more complex.
The book covers the history of China's Church, from its earliest foundations in 781 AD right up until the 21st Century and can be summed up as an honest, challenging, narrative of understanding. 'Honest' because this is not a light hearted book. Although the writers slightly gloss over some of the harsher aspects of communism, the iron fist is definitely visible through the velvet glove. 'Challenging' because it is difficult to read this book without feeling challenged as you sit in the comfortably free and relatively fair political and social arena of western democracy. 'Narrative', because we slowly and somewhat awkwardly move through Chinese history. 'Understanding' because it's impossible to go away from this book without a clearer picture of what it means, has meant, and will mean, to be a Christian in China. Cultural insights and anecdotal evidence abound.
A good example of this is early on in chapter two where an account is told of a meeting between Mr Golf and a Chinese pastor who had returned briefly to his homeland from a period working for the church in the US. They had been having a long conversation in a café, when suddenly a phone started ringing. On the line was an agent from the Public Security Bureau, who had been monitoring their conversation. They had been talking for far too long, and the eavesdropping spy wondered if they could wrap things up quickly as he really would very much like to go home. It is this kind of cultural strangeness - the idea that the Chinese population expects to be spied on, and the Chinese state finding subterfuge redundant - that is the kind of valuable insight that this book provides in huge quantities.
Although there is some discussion of the early missions of the monk Alopen's the Jesus Sutras, Matteo Ricci's Jesuit missions, and Hudson Taylor's Protestant inroads into mainland China, the bulk of the book focuses on the latter half of the 20th century. It moves through three groups of churches, the traditional house church, which existed under the more brutal heel of communism from 1949-1979, the rural house church which emerged from a revival that began in the late 1970s, and the urban house church, which started as the move from rural to urban took hold, and is now coming into its own in the age of Chinese prosperity.
Whether you will enjoy the read or not depends substantially on how you like your structure. There is some order to things, with the discussion of what Mr Golf calls China's Kairos (Greek word meaning strategic point in time) moment at the beginning, a vision received in Easter 1942, and then ending with discussions of what the future might hold. However, there is lots of weaving about in-between (immediately after discussing 1942 in chapter one, we jump forward to 2011), making keeping track occasionally difficult. This is not a book where you can simply stop in the middle of a chapter and then pick it up the next day. Pause your reading at the chapter breaks, as they have thematic as well as periodical conclusions.
Issues like the western pilgrimage, the deep desire to evangelise the Middle East, the vast cultural and demographic differences between rural and urban china are all explored very well. And although there is discussion of links to the western church, and the deep connected heritage that the two communities share, there is no question that this is the story of China's church. It is not, like many other books on this subject, a self-aggrandising portrayal of the activities of western missionaries.
The overall tone of this book is one of God inspired optimism, tempered with the genuine sincerity afforded by historical experience. In that respect, the hope feels much more real than what is offered in some other texts, and you can't help but wonder while reading this what you can do for your own culture, and what you would need to do to be part of God's work in your own country.
To show how far Christianity has come in China in a mere seventy years, the following story is extremely helpful. Towards the books end, there is an account of a fifteen minute featurette entitled "Noah's Ark is not a myth". It was shown in 2012 on one of China's state controlled broadcasters, Beijing TV, and discussed the possibility that the remains of Noah's ark had been found on the top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. The following was said at the report's end "In the Ancient World, God provided a means of salvation which was the ark. Today in the twenty first century, God has provided another means of salvation, which is Jesus Christ. Christ is the Noah's Ark of today". After this, the programme returned to the news anchor who said "There you have it – Noah's Ark isn't a fairytale after all!"
This book is profound and striking, and flows with an air of deep sincerity. It is not to be read lightly, and will challenge at least as much as it inspires. The tone is aptly conversational, with moments of lightness and dark around a generally brightening story. There is hope for tomorrow in remembering yesterday. And for the now, there is something for all of us to learn.