Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up by Simon Chan
Review by Mike Reynolds (@mike_reynolds)
A dynamic chapter of church history is now being written in Asia. But the theological inflections at its heart are not well understood by outsiders. The published voices of elite academic theologians have drowned out the cadences of Christian faith as it is spoken, lived and prayed in the homes and churches of Tokyo or Shanghai or Madras.
Now, in Grassroots Asian Theology, Simon Chan examines Asian Christianity at its daily, sustaining level. There he uncovers a vibrant theology that is authentically Asian and truly engaging.
More than a mere survey, Grassroots Asian Theology makes a serious and constructive contribution to Asian theology. Organizing his discussion under leading themes of Christian theology, Chan looks at how Christians have grappled with their living faith in the context of Asian cultures and societies. Then, drawing on the church’s broader tradition, he points the way forward. Chan not only probes and informs, he leads and challenges readers across cultures to receive, live and communicate an authentic Christian faith.
This is a significant book for both outsiders and insiders to Asian Christianity, as well as those interested in the broader horizons of global theology. Chan reminds us that authentic theologies are grounded in particular peoples, places and cultures.
“Only Simon Chan can register Pentecostal perspectives in substantive conversation with Catholic and Orthodox traditions amidst Asian religio-cultural realities with surprising results about not only the retrieval of classical or historic Christian teachings but also with new points of contact and invited adjustments to established categories and frameworks of thinking. Grassroots Asian Theology is methodologically exemplary in suggesting a theology that is both fully Asian and ecumenical in the biblical sense.” (Amos Yong, J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology and dean of the School of Divinity, Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia)
“Simon Chan’s latest work is certainly a challenge to how ‘Asian theology’ has been perceived in the academic world. Lavishly referenced, conservative and scholarly, this is a most welcome addition to his notable works, which challenge readers to recover the spiritual and truly ‘theological’ essentials of Christianity.” (Allan H. Anderson, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom)
“Here is a thoughtful and ecumenically sensitive contribution to Asian theology from one of the most respected Pentecostal theologians in Asia. Particularly striking is the careful integration of Asian traditions–both grassroots and elite, with contemporary Western reflection. With this work we are seeing the emergence of a mature Asian evangelical voice that is certain to change the dynamics of the global theological conversation. The book will be useful in both theology courses and church education classes.” (William Dyrness, professor of theology and culture, Fuller Theological Seminary)
“This is a groundbreaking work in privileging the lived experience of the Christian majority in Asia in the process of theological construction. More surprising and admirable is the author’s grounding Asian grassroots theology in historic Christian theological traditions, opening a wide horizon for Asian theology to engage with and contribute to the global theological movement.” (Wonsuk Ma, executive director, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies)
“A resourceful, perceptive and much-needed work in the complex landscape of Asian theology.” (K.-K. Yeo, Harry R. Kendall Professor of New Testament, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)
“This book offers thought-provoking assessments of foundational Christian doctrines from close engagement with Asian circumstances and Asian Christian teachers. As it examines the Trinity, the church, the person and work of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, insights from western Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox are put to good use, but always with the aim of articulating genuinely Asian theologies. Much of the future of Christian theology worldwide is outlined in this helpful study.” (Mark A. Noll, Francis McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame)
Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up. By Simon Chan. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. 216 pages. ISBN 978-0830840489. $22.00.
“A theology that ignores the grassroots is not likely to go very far” (72). These are Chan’s words to his readers, rebuking “elitist” theologies that take neither grassroots experiences nor beliefs seriously. It is with this idea that Chan presents his work.
Chan begins his study with some “methodological considerations” (ch. 1), basically laying down some ground rules of his study. He discusses the issue of elitist theologies, and the importance of a study of Asian theology that is separate from elitist theologians. He also discusses the importance of ecclesial experience, the role of folk Christianity, and “local theologies.” Chan writes, noting the importance of the greater Christian tradition in relation to local theologies: “Local cultures do shape the way faith is received and expressed, but for a local theology to be authentically Christian, it must have substantial continuity with the larger Christian tradition” (11).
After laying down the methodological considerations, Chan looks at God in Asian contexts (ch. 2). He breaks down this chapter looking at God in Islamic contexts, Indian contexts, Chinese contexts, and primal religious contexts. It is in this second chapter that he introduces the concept of the Trinity as perceived in Asia, which he develops throughout the chapters that follow.
The rest of the book is broken down categorically, chapters 3-6 being:
– Humanity and Sin (ch. 3)
– Christ and Salvation (ch. 4)
– The Holy Spirit and Spirituality (ch. 5)
– The Church (ch. 6)
Not seeking to present an exhaustive book of Asian theology (as he notes in his introduction), each of these chapters are more-or-less spent introducing how grassroots Asian theology approaches and interacts with the discussed category. For example, Chan writes in chapter 4: “The grassroots Christology we have been considering shows that issues related to Christology have actually less to do with such grand schemes as sociopolitical liberation as with the day-to-day reality of struggling with sickness, fear, and finance” (117-18; my italics). Chan seeks the day-to-day realities of grassroots Asian theology.
Chan brings a lot of excellent knowledge about Asian thought and culture to the table in this discussion of Asian theology. His level of writing may be above that of an average reader, in that one may find it a difficult read without previous theological study or reading under their belt. Coming from the academic branch of IVP, it is more technical.
The way in which Chan presents the discussion makes it beneficial to the discussion of global Christianity and the global church as a whole. This book is for more than just those individuals interested in Asia. Even though it seems like a theology of Simon Chan at times, I would say that it still seeks to understand authentic on-the-ground Asian theology, to then open up the opportunity for grassroots Asian theology to inform the broader context of the global church.
Ultimately, this book is best suited for theology students. Any serious student of theology would find Chan’s discussion helpful in understanding Asian theology, and considering the church growth in Asia and the shift of the Christian center-of-gravity away from the West that is discussed in so many books, it is topic that deserves study. “A dynamic chapter of church history is now being written in Asia.”
*This book was provided free from InterVarsity Press with my promise to post an unbiased review.