Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia- John C. England

Book Review: The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia- John C. England

The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia: The Churches of the East Before 1500 gives a brief but thorough history of Christianity along the Silk Road, from Central Asia through Mongolia to China, Japan, and Korea, southwards to India and Java. Primarily, this book discusses the far reach of the Church of the East in Persia throughout all of Asia which primarily goes unnoticed by mainstream Christian historians in the West. Christianity has traditionally been divided between West, meaning Latin, and East, meaning Greek. Even if Syriac Christianity has been discussed, focus (in my experience, of course) has been limited to West Syrian Christianity centered on Antioch. The Persian Church’s history, as it has usually been discarded as Nestorian and therefore heretical, has typically been ignored on the whole. However, as Indian Christians the history of this “Far Eastern” type of Christian is critical to our own history as the unique Saint Thomas Christians, or nazranis, of India.

John C. England, a scholar on Eastern Christianity affiliated with Christian institutions of the Pacific Rim, characterizes Christianity in the “East” by its culture, liturgy, and theology. An in depth analysis of all the regions covered will not be given here. What was most interesting perhaps was that East Syrian Christianity was spread by Persian and Armenian laymen and monastics across the existing trade routes, and lasted for centuries before any contact with the “West” was established. The gospel was preached successfully, even to the court of Ghengis Khan, and beyond, using Buddhist and Confucian terminology. For hundreds of years in the Middle Ages, Bishops and monasteries existed in Tang Dynasty China, as a minority to be sure, remaining Christian without syncretism.

Of personal relevance was the chapter on India. Details on the history of the Indian, particularly Kerala, Church were provided, yet to my dismay still remaining sparse. This is not really the author’s fault, as much of the documentation of the Pre-Portuguese era was destroyed by an Indian Inquisition. I am still interested in some conclusive history on whether the Malayalee Church was properly East Syrian Nestorian, Jacobite West Syrian, some of both, or both existing side by side. That historical analysis will have to be written at some point. I do recommend the book, though, for anyone looking to understand that Christianity can be contextual and relevant in any culture without sacrificing any bit of truth.

-Steve K.

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