Christian Movements in Southeast Asia: A Theological Exploration (ed. Michael Nai-Chiu Poon) is an engaging look at the history, theology, and missiology of one of the most religious vibrant areas in the world. The volume is a collection of essays published pulled together by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia and published in partnership with Singapore’s Trinity Theological College.
The essays vary in their scope, from detailed analysis of the emergence of “folk Christianity” to an impassioned plea for Southeast Asian churches to help historians document the rapidly changing religious and cultural landscape of the region. One fairly consistent thread through the essays, however, is the role Pentecostalism has played in helping contextualize Christianity into a variety of different locales and expressions.
Reading through the essays it became clear to me that there is much that Southeast Asian Christianity can teach those of us in the West about how Christianity might navigate the challenges of globalization and religious pluralism. Singapore, in particular, seems well positioned to help in this effort. Roger Hedlund’s “Present-day Independent Christian Movements: A South Asian Perspective” is instructive in this regard.
He argues for the necessity of indigenous embodiments of Christianity through “self-theologising and other manifestations of rootedness in the local soil” (43). With Andrew Walls, Hedlund observes that Christianity has always changed and adapted as a result of its interaction with new cultures, and that the demise of Christendom need not offer a death knell to worldwide Christianity (49). In fact, the world is probably a better place because of Christendom’s demise. Why? Because it creates space for the “imaging [of] local cultural patterns of organisational structure and leadership” (54) and the emergence of movements which are “products of the local culture, having risen ‘from the soil,’ and [are] not transplants from Europe or America” (52).
Whether this eventually results in a “new Christendom,” to borrow from Philip Jenkins, or moves us “beyond Christendom,” as Jehu Hanciles asserts, a theology and ecclesiology of idigeneity may prove helpful even in the West. In this regard, Christianity in Southeast Asia in general, and Singapore in particular, may be further down the path than in the West. Hedlund writes, “In the 1950s, it was observed that the offence of Christianity in Southeast Asia was the church, not the Cross as in the ancient world. ‘While most educated Asians admire the character and goodness of Christ, they do not accept the Christ as Saviour or join the fellowship of those who call themselves Christian’” (56). How true that rings to my ears as I look at the growing number of “spiritual but not religious” people in the US today.
In a follow-up essay (“Understanding Southeast Asian Christianity”), Hedlund asserts that in Singapore, the opportunities brought by globalization and the free market have not led to secularization, as they have in the West. Religion is alive and well (60). Yet that does not mean that there are not substantial challenges yet to be faced. While Pentecostalism has led to vibrant contextualizations of Christianity, it also presents opportunities to fall prey to an anemic prosperity gospel. “In a seductive society, the Christian identity is at risk, hence the importance of theological reflection in depth. . . . When theological reflection is lacking, Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity can become ‘more vulnerable to the hybrid values and pressures of the wider Singaporean society’” (92). The counter to the seductiveness of consumerism and its trappings is a deep return to the suffering of the Cross. This as true in the US as it is in Singapore. “The power of the Spirit in Pentecostal experience can be buttressed by a commensurate theology of the Cross” (93).
Pentecostalism also opens doors to new expressions of Christianity in pluralistic societies. “Rather than demonising and excluding the other religions, Pentecostalism may be open to possible intuitions of the Spirit’s presence beyond traditional boundaries” (96). This is not to argue for syncretism, but merely to affirm that in pluralistic societies there are many people taking divergent paths to understand their pull toward things spiritual. Because of the emphasis that Pentecostalism places on the living and active Spirit, it may be better positioned to imagine new ways of embodying this general pull toward spirituality. Quoting Hwa Yung, Hedlund makes the appeal for “a fully satisfactory theology of cultural and religious plurality, as opposed to one of religious pluralism, which takes seriously Christian and biblical distinctiveness on the one hand, and recognizes both evil and goodness in human cultures and religious pursuits on the other” (97).
Hedlund’s final appeal is for translatability: “Contextualization is found throughout the New Testament churches. Inclusion of the Gentiles brought in all kinds of questions. . . . Their situation was not unlike our own. . . . the challenge before is to respond to what God is doing” (99). This is not only the challenge in Singapore, but the challenge in the West as well. As more and more people write off Christianity as dead, dying, or domineering, we have to find fresh ways of affirming the pull of spirituality while still offering a Cross-centered theology that bids us all to come and die so that we may yet live. Are we willing to kill churchianity in order to further Christianity?