Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Finding Prester John: Chinese Christianity

Zhang Wanlong, Life of Jesus
Relief Carved on 11.8' x 5.2' Panel of Antique Camphor Wood
Depicting Life of Jesus Through 75 Intricately Detailed Scenes
(Image at SBL Forum, Copyright 2006, Society of Biblical Literature )

Some historians argue that the voyages of discovery usually associated in our minds with the Renaissance have their origin in the Crusades, and that part of the motivation for such men as Henry the Navigator was to find the legendary Christian ruler Prester John to the east of the Muslim world in order to ally with him against Islam.

Prester John was never found, but Christianity had taken root in parts of Asia, as the Europeans discovered, and has received impetus there in late modern times through foreign mission work and indigenous proselytizing.

To the surprise of some, Christianity is rapidly increasing its numbers in China. Estimates of numbers of Christians range as high as 100 million and growing, but reliable statistics do not exist because most Christians are said to belong to underground house churches.

But if the upper estimates are close to the mark, and if Christianity is growing as rapidly as some say, then Prester John may have been found at last, for many Chinese house churches are committed to bringing the Christian message to the Muslim world as part of what they call the "Back To Jerusalem" movement that will send 100,000 Chinese missionaries along the ancient Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean. Those missionaries might consider heading up the Danube and Rhone rivers as well, for the Medieval European Christians who first sought Prester John have long gone missing and might be hard to find again.

Meanwhile, back in the East, a growing Christianity is grafting the branches of Chinese culture onto what St. Paul called "the rich root of the olive tree" (Romans 11.17, NRSV), and not only in the underground house churches but also in the officially recognized China Christian Council (CCC) and Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), which are currently sponsoring Chinese Christian art on exhibit in the United States. In a brief article "'Not spread by mouth only': The Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China," Sara Hayden of Columbia Theological Seminary has drawn attention to an exhibition of "impressive religious works created by Chinese Christian artists -- including paper cuttings, examples of micro-calligraphy, and linen scrolls -- [that] display biblical interpretations with uniquely Chinese characteristics." The exhibition is being shown in three cities:

With its opening in late April at the Crystal Cathedral in Greater Los Angeles, the Bible Ministry Exhibition is being held for the first time outside of China and Hong Kong. After its initial presentation at the Cathedral, the exhibit moved to Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. According to coordinator Ma Hongzhi, the Atlanta site was chosen for its "Bible Belt" location and the promise of support by former President Jimmy Carter. Following its stop in Atlanta, the exhibit moves to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City.

The exhibit has already left the Crystal Cathedral (April 27 - May 4) and is currently in Atlanta at the Ponce de Leon Baptist Church (May 19 - 24) but will soon move to The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City (June 5 - 12).

Zhang Wanlong's Life of Jesus appears especially impressive in a photo showing the artist in front of the painting at the Crystal Cathedral website -- even though the camera hasn't focused close enough to reveal the painstaken details.

If any Gypsy Scholar reader has visited this exhibit, let us know how you found it.

UPDATE: As my smarter older brother has pointed out, the exhibit has already left the States, so the SBL article -- which says, "Following its stop in Atlanta, the exhibit moves to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City." -- must have been written over a month ago even though I received it electronically only yesterday, but I should have paid more attention to the dates that I myself was typing. Sorry about that. Did anybody see this exhibit?

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At 6:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey GP--if I'm reading the dates correctly, the exhibit has left the States entirely. Unless the dates are wrong--let me know as I'm in NYC July 9-12. Thanks.


At 6:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Damn! You're right! I was so engrossed in getting all of the links to work that I paid no attention to real offline time (despite typing the offline time into my blog). I assumed that the exhibit was current since the SBL Forum is sent electronically.

Okay, enough excuses.

By the way, Pat, you seem to be going to New York a lot these days. What's the deal? Business or pleasure?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both--there is a federal home loan bank in new york (one of the 12 throughout the US). While we are independent of one another we do cooperate in areas of mutual interest. So, I end up in NYC about twice a year. I generally take a day or two or personal time to attend shows, go to jazz clubs, walk around, museum hop, etc. Washington, DC and NYC are currently my two favorite cities.


At 4:54 AM, Blogger Derek the ├ćnglican said...

Hmmm. From what I hear many of the so-called Christian groups bear little resemblence to what we're used to in the west. I remember an article from the NY Times last November on the phenomenon which made the groups seem much less than orthodox...

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Derek the ├ćnglican, there's no doubt a wide range of Christian groups in China, most of them broadly evangelical and even pentecostal in beliefs and practices.

The substratum will be Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and various Chinese folk beliefs all mixed together ... much as here in Korea.

If we look closely at Medieval Christianity, we see parallels in the mixing of Christian and pagan beliefs (as you would already know, of course). That's one of the things that fascinates me about Medieval Christianity, as reflected in such works as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Thanks for commenting.

Jeffery Hodges

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