Melissa Inouye’s ‘China and the True Jesus’—An Interview

I interviewed Dr Melissa Inouye (University of Auckland) about her latest book, China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019). Drawing on historical and oral sources, Inouye presents a fascinating analysis of the well-known yet understudied Chinese Christian group, the True Jesus Church.

Why did you want to produce this study on the True Jesus Church?

I first encountered the True Jesus Church in China when a woman struck up a conversation with my husband and my baby son on a bus in a city. She invited him to church that evening. At the time we were attending a local Three-Self congregation, so he asked, “Is it a Three-Self church meeting?” She said no. So he asked, “Is it a house church meeting?” She said no. I was intrigued to hear about this church that defied the categories I had in my mind for Chinese Christianity. I went to the meeting place in a sort of commercial building and found that it was in fact a True Jesus Church. I had previously encountered the True Jesus Church in Taiwan but was surprised to find them here, in the PRC. In addition to being intrigued by the True Jesus Church’s out-of-the-box identity, I also wanted to investigate the relationship between native religious culture and transplanted Christian culture within the church. It struck me as extremely Chinese, but also very like other global forms of restorationist Christianity such as Mormonism. 

The term “charisma” is often associated with charismatic Christianity. While this is true in your book, why is Max Weber’s understanding also important?

Max Weber’s work lays out three different types of authority (charismatic, rationalistic/bureaucratic, and traditional) and suggests that they coexist alongside and reinforce each other. He defines charisma as the sort of extraordinary power or quality channeled by certain individuals, and that also can be channeled into institutions. So by “charismatic” I am not only referencing certain Christian “gifts of the Spirit” including glossolalia, healing, and so on, but also the form of authority and power these extraordinary practices or experiences convey. Charismatic authority is in a productive tension with the bureaucratic authority of a large church organization, like the True Jesus Church, that tends toward centralization and institutionalization. The point I try to make throughout the book is that many large-scale human collective endeavours (not just Christian churches) are held together by this tension between charisma and organisation, including the Qing bureaucracy and the bureaucracy of the Communist party-state. 

Why has the interplay between orality and textuality been important for the True Jesus Church?

One of the reasons the True Jesus Church arose and flourished was that it harnessed the power of in-person oral exchanges (such as revivalistic preaching, word-of-mouth accounts, and prayer) alongside the power of printed texts (such as sheets explaining what needed to be “corrected” about Christianity and periodicals that reinforced the identity and culture of a far-flung community). There was a lot of cross-referencing between speech and text. For example, early print publications such as Global Church Correction, have an oral quality, including repetitive use of exclamatory phrases such as “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lord Jesus” and “Amen”. Oral preaching was peppered with references to the Bible, using close readings of the biblical text to argue that all other churches had strayed too far from biblical truths. 

What significance has gender played in the making and the sustaining of the church?

The True Jesus Church’s emphasis on charismatic practice made it particularly accessible to women. This is one of the factors enabling it to spread organically throughout China and across Chinese diasporic networks. Women are prominently featured in stories of healing and exorcism as both the recipients and enactors of charismatic power. Women were able to serve as deaconesses and preachers. Even though men occupied the higher rungs of ecclesiastical authority, in times of state persecution, when the vertical authority structures were razed, women were able to sustain the life of the church through ongoing clandestine charismatic practice.

Can we speak of the True Jesus Church as “Confucian” or “Daoist”? What makes it “Chinese”?

I think that all of these native influences and traditions have informed the development of the True Jesus Church. However, in my book I try hard to emphasise that overlapbetween transplanted traditions and native moral and religious traditions is to be expected in nearly all forms of religion. What makes the True Jesus Church distinctive is not its “Chineseness” or its “supernatural elements” but the complete package of individuals’ experiences, biblical elements, transnational influences, and native common sense. The church is Chinese because it was founded in China by Chinese people, and shaped by major transformations in that nation’s history. But “Chinese” is not all it is.

What do we learn about Chinese Christianity from this exclusivist sectarian group when compared to mainstream figures such as Wang Mingdao, John Sung, and Watchman Nee?

The True Jesus Church, unlike many of the other ecumenical, “union”-oriented churches in the Chinese Christian mainstream, had an exclusivist set of doctrines and evangelistic approaches that led many to accuse it of heterodoxy, “sheep-stealing,” and other “anti-social” practices. This level of suspicion may be magnified in the sources, in which the bulk of materials were produced by the big institutions of the “Sino-foreign Protestant establishment.” The degree to which Chinese Christianity today has resisted “postdenominationalism,” however, and produced numerous exclusivist or at least strongly self-defined sects and denominations, suggests that the ideas and culture of this Republican-era establishment may have been more limited and indeed less “mainstream” than originally thought. The charismatic milieu of the historical True Jesus Church is very close to Chinese Christian practice today, including even within some Three-Self congregations. 

Now that you have published the authoritative study on the True Jesus Church, what is your next project?

Ha ha! The study is far from authoritative, but it’s finished. (Even though there were many more things I wanted to say, it was already over 400 pages!) My next project is an investigation into various kinds of Republican-era popular associations centered around ideas of universal human morality and internationalism.

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Auckland. Her areas of research interest include the social and cultural history of modern China, charismatic global Christianity, and women and religion. She received her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University in 2011.

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