Simon Chan’s Grassroots Asian Theology – A Book Review

Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up. By Simon Chan. Downers Grove, IL, USA, IVP Academic 2014. Pp. 217. $22.00.

Grassroots Asian Theology

Simon Chan’s latest monograph, published by IVP Academic in 2014, aims to shift the Asian theological discourse from ‘elitist theology’ (e.g., Minjung theology, Dalit theology, C. S. Song, Kosuke Koyama, etc.) towards ‘grassroots theology’.

Much of what the West knows as Asian theology consists largely of elitist accounts of what Asian theologians are saying, and elitist theologians seldom take grassroots Christianity seriously. Yet it is at the grassroots level that we encounter a vibrant, albeit implicit, theology. It is this theology that I wish to highlight. (pg. 7)

Even Asian liberation theologies, he argues, are formulated by elites on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. Citing one unnamed Latin American theologian more than once, ‘Liberation theology opted for the poor and the poor opted for Pentecostalism’ (pp. 27, 103, 162).

Grassroots theology, in contrast, reflects the lived theology of Christians in their ecclesial experiences.  It is not bound by elitist sociopolitical or individual experiences, but ‘essentially an ecclesial endeavor requiring cooperation between the people of God and the theologian’ (pg. 17). Conversing with elitist and grassroots thinkers, Chan constructs an Asian theology around traditional theological loci:1 God in Asian contexts (ch. 2), humanity and sin (ch. 3), Christ and salvation (ch. 4), the Holy Spirit and spirituality (ch. 5), and the church (ch. 6).

In my reading, there appears to be three recurring themes important for Chan’s Asian theological discourse. In the first, he highlights how the Asian priority given to the family should play a part in shaping Asian theology. For example, the ordered relationships in the Asian family reflect ordered relationships in the Triune family (pp. 65-68) and in the Christian family (pp. 186-88). Moreover, the importance of one’s ancestors suggests the usefulness of understanding Christ as both high priest and our ‘greatest ancestor’ (pg. 116).2

Secondly, Chan underscores the theme of honour and shame to better articulate the doctrines of sin (pp. 81-90) and salvation (pp. 112-13). While some have recently seen the apologetic value in describing Asian culture this way,3 the idea finds its roots in Ruth Benedict’s 1946 claim that Asian culture (or, more precisely, Japanese culture) is a culture of shame whereas Western culture is a culture of guilt.4 However, Benedict’s thesis has been heavily criticised by a number of scholars in Japan, China and North America. While this in itself should not discount the usefulness of Chan’s constructive engagement, relying on such a notion must be done with care as to not too quickly essentialise Asian culture.

The third theme is the importance of Asian Pentecostalism, as it reflects one of the most visible forms of Asian folk Christianity. Chan retorts, ‘Failure to take folk Christianity seriously, as we have seen in mainline Protestant Christianity, has resulted in either a fossilized tradition (mostly among the more conservative) or one that is subject to the whims of cultural changes (mostly among the more liberal)’ (pg. 32). Asian Pentecostalism provides the resources for a grassroots theology to better address the primal religious worldview of the popular religiosity that elites have too often ignored (pp. 30-35, 144-56, 201).

One criticism I would raise about this book is that it perhaps too quickly discounts the value of elite theologies. They have their own important theological contributions and, as seen in the skirmishes between Wang Mingdao and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, sometimes bring shape to the discourse of grassroots theologies. Moreover, the line dividing elite and grassroots theologies is not often so clear.5 This point aside, Simon Chan’s book successfully widens the view of Asian Christianity by bringing to focus the important contributions lived theologies have for the people of God – in Asia, and in the global church.

Thanks to IVP Academic for providing me a review copy of this book.

  1. Despite its structure, Chan’s work does not claim to be a systematic theology (pg. 8). 
  2. Though Chan does not discuss this, the Vietnamese-American Catholic theologian Peter Phan has also argued the need for a Christology whereby Jesus is recognised as eldest son and ancestor. Peter C. Phan, Christianity with an Asian Face: Asian American Theology in the Making (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), 125-45. 
  3. This has been the theme of a recent cartoon animation and Jackson Wu’s doctoral study, ‘The Honor of God in the Shame of Christ for Falvation: A Theological Contextualization from Chinese Culture’ (PhD thesis, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012), later published as Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation Through Honor and Shame (Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, 2013). 
  4. Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1946). 
  5. This ambiguity between ‘elite’ and ‘grassroots’ can be seen in the growing urban intellectual churches of mainland China. See Alexander Chow, ‘Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today’, International Journal of Public Theology 8.2 (May 2014): 158-175, DOI: 10.1163/15697320-12341340. Download 

2 thoughts on “Simon Chan’s Grassroots Asian Theology – A Book Review

  1. thanks for the helpful and insightful summary on Simon Chan’s book. It sounds like an interesting read. I appreciated your personal thoughts on it. Thanks again.

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