I’ve long been an admirer of Evan Osnos and the fine reporting that he’s done for the Chicago Tribune and the New Yorker. He has a keen and subtle eye that finds narratives, and details, where other reporters might only find platitudes.
So it was with some anticipation that I awaited his latest work, “Jesus in China,” ambitiously billed as an examination of the transformative effects of China’s ongoing, and explosive, Christian awakening. Developed jointly by the Chicago Tribune and the PBS Frontline documentary series, the project includes two components: a series of articles published by the Chicago Tribune, and a 30-minute Frontline documentary.
Osnos has received quite a bit of praise for this work, with some going so far as to call it groundbreaking. I’m sorry to say that I disagree. In many ways, in fact, I find “Jesus in China” to be a step backwards from the more nuanced understanding of contemporary Chinese Christianity that has developed over the last few years, especially from reporters (like Jim Yardley of the NYT) willing to delve into the complicated dynamics that exist in today’s “open” church communities.
Alas, for reasons that are known only to Osnos and his editors, “Jesus in China” concerns itself almost exclusively with “underground” church communities. This approach would be justifiable if the reporting was billed as an examination of underground churches in open conflict with local authorities. But it’s not. Instead, it’s billed as “Jesus in China” – that is, it’s designed to be a comprehensive examination of how Chinese Christianity “could potentially transform China at an explosive moment in its development.”
Does Osnos accomplish this task?
For nearly three decades, most foreign reporters have looked at China’s Christians and automatically assumed that the spiritual life of those who belong to churches licensed by the Chinese authorities are somehow less authentic than those who don’t. Buoyed by misleading labels like “underground” and “official” (as applied to China’s divided Christians), this view of Chinese Christianity has real power – nevermind the fact that it obscures the far more subtle reality of Chinese Christian life, especially as it exists among open communities. And, for that matter, it marginalizes the spiritual life of the tens of millions of Chinese Christians who choose to worship in churches registered with – but not run by – local governments. It also overlooks the real accomplishments that have arisen from open communities – including reformed liturgies, the re-establishment of Chinese religious education, and some of China’s most vibrant social service programs – not to mention the establishment of government-recognized institutions with an implicit interest in expanded religious freedom.
Thus it’s a pity to see “Jesus in China” get lost in labels. Repeatedly, and interchangeably, Osnos refers to the “state church,” the “official church,” the “state-controlled church” and “the state controlled church known as the Three Self Patriotic Movement” without pausing to examine whether there is, in fact, a state church in China (much less a brief consideration of the centuries-long regulation of Christianity in China). To be sure there are government-established organizations that have oversight and registration powers over China’s churches (the Catholic Patriotic Association in the case of Catholics; the Three Self Patriotic Movement in the case of post-denominational Protestants), but they are independent and distinct from the churches themselves (I touched on this issue in “Keeping Faith” from the July/August 2007 issue of The Atlantic). That is to say: there is no state-church in China. This is a simple but important fact, recognized by Western religious leaders from the Pope, to the Archbishop of Canterbury (see the Pope’s 2007 Letter to China’s Catholics, and this press release from Canterbury), and it is the foundational justification for, say, the Pope’s current effort to reconcile China’s divided Catholic communities (as Rome has repeatedly stated: there is only one Church in China).
Another important point overlooked or unknown to Osnos: laity and clergy who belong to respective churches may belong to the associations – but they are not required to do so, and haven’t been required to do so, in years. I personally know of priests and nuns who live and work in open church communities without patriotic memberships. And, to a person, they prefer to be called “open” or “registered” Christians to reflect their choice to worship in churches registered with the government. There is nothing state-established or official about them.
Unfortunately, Osnos spends almost no time interviewing open church figures or leaders. And when he does touch on the subject, he or others implicitly or directly impute the motives and reality of open Christian life – nevermind the fact that it is reality for tens of millions of Chinese. Consider, for example, this passage from the synopsis to “Jesus in China.” The quote is provided by an underground pastor when asked about the open Church:
“The pastors and ministers are all hand-picked and trained by the government. They’re guided by the Communist Party’s philosophy,” says Zhang Mingzuan. “But they haven’t given their hearts to Jesus. They’ve given their hearts to the country, and the Emperor.”
The first half of this quote is provably false: Chinese seminarians are very much a self-selected bunch, and – if anything – restrictions on admission are designed to keep away those who lack the maturity to enter. Likewise, distinguished foreign teachers have been resident in China’s Catholic seminaries for two decades (including the current Cardinal Archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, for extended periods in the 1980s and 1990s), and few of them could be painted as tools of any political party. On a recent trip to China, the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed an interest in expanding partnerships with Chinese seminaries, and instituting exhanges. Whatever the case, Osnos doesn’t bother to verify Rev. Zhang’s false claim, but instead allows it to flow into his overall, sensationalistic narrative of underground Christians on the run throughout China. Of course, there is little question that there are “underground” communities that are harassed and even persecuted. But the question is: are they representative of Chinese Christian life, or its future?
Consider, the label “underground church,” and its implicit suggestion of Chinese Christians praying in the proverbials catacombs. In point of fact, there were once Chinese underground churches – during parts of the Qing Dynasty and during the Cultural Revolution, when religion (or Christianity, in the case of the Qing) was totally outlawed. But that has not been the case since the late 1970s. Today, even most “underground” churches operate openly with little to no interference from local governments (thus, I prefer to refer to them as “unregistered”). Undoubtedly, there are local governments and officials who take umbrage at the idea of religious gatherings without government registration, and harass those communities. But most don’t. Put differently: the majority of China’s, say, 70 million Christians, are not on the constant run from the authorities. That is to say, they, too, live lives as complicated and nuanced as those in the open church.
[Osnos is an experienced China reporter, and he surely knows that local enforcement of laws - religious or otherwise - varies throughout China, and rarely reflects the desires of the national government that writes them.]
Just to be clear: I don’t deny the existence, or the suffering, of China’s unregistered Christians over the last sixty years. And neither am I an apologist for Chinese religious policies, nor the the excesses of local governments that still harass believers. But, unlike Osnos, I don’t overlook the existence, suffering, and accomplishments of China’s many millions of registered Christians over the same period. To tell the story of one, without accurately explaining the circumstances of the other, is to tell an incomplete story that distorts a more complicated reality. This is precisely the failure of “Jesus in China,” and I sincerely hope that Osnos, the Chicago Tribune, and Frontline will make an effort to re-balance it at some point in the future.