Book Review: Grassroots Asian Theology by Simon Chan
Author: Simon Chan
Publisher: IVP Academic
Reading Level: Moderate
“An authentic Asian theology is not just for the church in Asia but for the worldwide church.” (204)
The continent of Asia is home to the majority of Earth’s population. The continent’s most populous country, China, is an imposing statistical entity in its own right. Increasingly “the East” is influencing the world in political, sociopolitical and religious ways. Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (henceforth Grassroots) is an introduction to the Christian tradition taking root in this portion of the world.
Though Grassroots is not a “systematic theology” (8) it provides a comprehensive introduction to many of the Christian faith’s most important doctrines (see below). Nor is Grassroots simply a collection of factual information. Instead, Simon Chan presents “how theology ought to be done,” (8) lending itself to a more organic presentation of multiple perspectives on and assessments of doctrine.
In line with this, Chan pulls resources and quotations from a broad range of Christian traditions. Those solely familiar with evangelical or Protestant thought may find themselves overwhelmed or uncomfortable with the steady diet of Orthodox and Catholic theologians. At its core, the language of Grassroots is theological and will present some difficulties for those not deeply familiar with the principal doctrines of sin, mankind, the Trinity and the church. This is especially noticeably in the opening chapters that deal with doctrinal methodology (chapter 1) and God in the differing cultural contexts of Asia (chapter 2). Chan writes precisely when presenting views that emanate from Asia, as well as critically evaluating said views.
Demonstrating clarity and contextual flow, each Grassroots chapter comes to a close with a recapping conclusion that simultaneously propels the doctrine in the next chapter.
“The chief ecclesiological problem in Asia is how to be church in the midst of more ancient family-based religious communities.” (201)
The content of Grassroots is simplistically broken up into methodology and historical context (chapters 1 & 2), salvation in Asian context (chapters 3 & 4) and finally the spiritual life of the church in Asian context (chapters 5 & 6). From the outset conservative Protestants may find themselves on the defensive. Setting a tone for the entire evaluation, Chan argues “Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of principles that could be replicated in any context without reference to their historical origins” (12). This methodology of the Scriptures, tradition and church experience (14-27) impressively challenges both conservative Protestantism and the false experiential expression of liberalism. Far from being an impractical description, Chan is able to present the differences such a theology makes on social ethics, as exemplified in a contrast between Tillich and Barth, (36-41). This contrast and methodology brings Grassroots to the point where it can address Christian doctrines from the cultural context of the Asian people groups (47-65).
Using this methodology, Chan offers stimulating insights to an “honor-and-shame” perspective on the sinful nature of man (82-89) and the “cosmic Christ,” (97-117) including a valuable discussion of Orthodox deification against the crucial role of conversion in Asian culture (123-124). The role of family in Asian society drives the religious experience of the people and church, and with this in mind, Grassroots moves into a provocative discourse on the Holy Spirit (chapter 5). Chan presents roles for the Spirit that bend traditional understandings (129-136) as well as provide direct criticism to evangelical Pneumatology (144-151). These doctrines find themselves reaching their climax in a thought provoking evaluation of “the communion of saints” within an Asian sociology (188-197). Instead of warping Scriptural teaching, Chan demonstrates the validity of viewing the church and communion of the saints ontologically first and sociologically second. This goes against the tendencies of many modern Protestants. The effects on eschatology and salvation after death are formidable (196).
Interspersed throughout the doctrinal discussion, Grassroots presents valuable reasons for why Pentecostalism remains a successful venture in Asia. Chan also provides insightful looks at the theology of Singh (151-156), Mangalwadi (178-179) and Nee (180-186).
After everything is said and done, Grassroots is the breathe of fresh air blowing through western modernism and postmodernism. The unashamed inclusions of broad Christian Orthodoxy and the challenges of Asian cultural context should have a profound impact on the American church.
The Pentecostal success and relevance portrayed by Chan provides challenging insights for Catholics and Reformed Protestants alike. Grassroots is valuable reading for those seeking to understand or minister to the church in Asia. Laymen, pastors and students alike will find the discussion on “how theology ought to be done” (8) refreshing and challenging.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”