I’ve been given a copy of Eastern Voices, the first volume of ministry resources published by Asian Access, a California based evangelical mission agency (though its president is now based out of Japan). It’s a celebratory volume for the ministry’s 50th anniversary. Here’s my review of the book.
The book consists of shared wisdom from the ground in Asia on how ministries are done. In the West, we often fail to hear the wisdom of the global south. This volume seeks to rectify this lacuna. In some ways, the book is doing theology “from below”, literally at the grass root level. Since I work mostly with academics, something from below can help balance perspectives and world views. Obviously, this is only one perspective among many perspectives. The book shares insights from Asia, especially certain areas of Asia. We obviously need more voices from other parts of the globe as well. This work will encourage us to listen to more voices, if we follow its lead. More and not less voices are always better for Christianity.
Besides adopting the recent trend to listen to global voices, why is this book necessary? It’s necessary because 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia. In some ways, even if Asians immigrate to other countries, their influence still remains decisively Asian. Now, in order to really hear Asian voices, we need to read literature in various Asian languages. Since many Western readers only read English, this volume with give a glimpse of the Asian voices from Asia.
There’re some highlights in this volume that we can pay attention to. The volume starts off with an essay about losing face and saving soul by an Asian pastor whose Buddhist background informs us. The author was a born leader in a pro-democratic movement that had led to his conversion to Christianity. In this article, he chronicles his seminary education as being primarily academic. When reading this, his paradigm is very much what I’ve seen in Asia, that many students expect “soul nurture” components in their theological education. Yet, the Western paradigm has an academic emphasis (the author attributes it to Asian value on education. I’m unsure that’s been my own experience as a bicultural person.). As a person raised in the West, I see two ways forward, both of which have their own deficiencies. First, the seminary can continue down the academic path while the church should do its job of “soul nurture”. After all, the seminary can’t be everything for all people. Second, the seminary can change its curriculum to include a “soul nurture” element. This may or may not impact the academic credibility of the seminary as course emphases shift about. Anyone reading such an article should pay attention to this issue especially when educating Asians because this is a somewhat common Asian ethos. On a personal note, I think churches must do better to nurture healthier student candidates not only spiritually and emotionally but also intellectually so that they can be ready to deal with academic studies.
Let me make some final observations. Some of the Asian cultures of the authors of these articles exhibit certain self-denigration about their own cultures, and many of the authors probably have had a certain amount of Western education (thus explaining why they can write in English). This combination can create a mistaken notion that somehow their sometimes overly harsh assessment of Asian culture as being a shame-based culture is the only way to look at Asian culture, thus resulting in further disparagement of Asian culture (which itself seems a problematic notion as there’s no single unified Asian culture) by the Western reader.While self-denigration can be a virtue in many Asian cultures, this isn’t necessarily a helpful in a Western paradigm. In this volume, I hear some honor and shame sociological language to describe Asian culture (in the context of Myanmar). While that may be true (or perhaps simplistically half true), these are categories informed by Western sociology (mostly) to typify ancient cultures. Such language can make those cultures the “other”, resulting in a smug Western attitude of “See? We’re not them. That’s why THEY need US.” Readers could think that Asian culture has a monopoly on honor and shame culture (i.e. “giving face”), but reality is far from this construct. My experience is mostly in Western culture. I find as many instances of love of honor (i.e. “giving face”) in Western culture as Asian culture, perhaps appearing differently than the Asian culture, but that practice is alive and well in the West. I think it is right to sound that alarm to understand the limitations of the sociological typology and find in our own Western culture similar manifestations. Do not Western ministers also prioritize career (i.e. honor over shame) above calling? Do Western church celebrities not care about reputation more than truth even when they make grave ethical mistakes? I think we can think of many examples. Honor and shame certainly exist in a very pronounced way in both the West and the East. Observing another culture can create a lack of awareness of our own culture. I’m here to point that out. I suppose that’s my major beef with that construct.
One of the heart-warming features throughout this work is the simplicity and beauty of faith. The book features authors who follow their passions to minister to different people through different paths. Some have taken the roundabout way to seminary while others follow mentors. Still others have taken more of a traditional way of ministry. Some have worked in most risky and challenging circumstances (e.g. Fukushima nuclear disaster area) in sacrificial and inspiring manner. The most important thing is how Asia Access has become the creative vehicle to work in various contexts.
At the end, some of the stories can be an encouragement to those of us in the West. Many of us here think that persecution is merely having people disliking the fact that we’re Christians. That really isn’t hardship or persecution. That’s just inconvenience or a difference of opinion. Some of the hardship depicted in this book shows to us what real persecution looks like. The book reminds us to break out of our comfortable little shell or our imagined persecution into how the rest of the world lives. Books like this reminds us to pray for many things other than our “daily bread” and to practice our faith in our daily lives in a way that has impact. Otherwise, our comfort will slowly lull us into a spiritual coma.