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The New Protestants’ Ethic Is Quite Old

A few years ago I remember reading in the book,  Jesus In Beijing, that some in China’s elite believed that Christianity had something to do with the rise of the West.

It didn’t mention the words prosperity gospel but there was definitely a connection made between Protestant Christianity and progress, or capitalism and cross that was viewed as favorable, desirable even.

And so (h/t to this blog by the Kellers – no idea if they have a relation to the pastor of Redeemer in NYC), we find ourselves in 2008 with the “Stunning Growth of Christianity in China”:

This article written in the Economist suggests there are up to 130 million Christians in churches as of 2008. This is a huge number considering in 1949, less then 1% of China understand the Christian faith. Why the explosion? Isn’t Christianity backwards? Interestingly, the article quotes individuals saying that Christianity in China is considered modern, edgy, and progressive. It is aligned with science and rationalism. The avg. church service is very bible-study focused, word-based, and therefore idea-centered.

Furthermore, Christianity in China has helped the Chinese, not just be hard-working, but also loyal and honest. Within the current systems in China, the reasons to obey and be moral are at best weak. Most, the article says, obey out of fear. Because Christianity seems to favor the market economy and encourages honesty and good works, it is seen as capitalistic and modern. Good point. Its interesting to see that Christianity in Europe is seen as regressive, but in China it is a means to further the Chinese growth. Perhaps this is why the government has not clamped down harder on the growing church. The article is a good short read.

Quote: All this amounts to something that Europeans, at least, may find
surprising. In much of Christianity’s former heartland, religion is
associated with tradition and ritual. In China, it is associated with
modernity, business and science. “We are first-generation Christians
and first-generation businessmen,” says one house-church pastor. In a
widely debated article in 2006, Mr Zhao wrote that “the market economy
discourages idleness. [But] it cannot discourage people from lying or
causing harm. A strong faith discourages dishonesty and injury.”
Christianity and the market economy, in his view, go hand in hand.

What this is means is that Christianity in China may be reduced to setting the rules of commercial exchange, or a solidarity of ethics, whereby the Judeo-Christian principles of property rights and justice sets the table for a market economy. What happens then when the pursuit of God is sublimated into a pursuit of the market? Isn’t this the deistic tendency of capitalism somehow? And what does it mean when Chinese Christians have a difficult time discerning the God of the Hebrew Bible and the God of prosperity and consumerism?

This tendency of course may already have its precedent in Chinese American Christians and their attitudes towards their faith and their pursuit of wealth. There’s a joke that gets a laugh among seminarians and pastors-to-be to the effect of “you’re not in ministry for the money.” A cheap laugh, for sure, but what if your churchgoers go to church for the hope of money? What if we effectively marry for money? study for money? sing songs for money? preach for money? lend money for money? sell money for money? How in the world is it possible to discern at what juncture we do anything for God and not the money?

The word in English, “Money,” can sound, to Korean ears, like the question, “What is it? 뭐니”. (the actual Korean word for money is 돈 pronounced dohn as in “Don Juan” – think Spanish pronunciation not Don). And a rather hilarious video came out a few years ago with ironically profound lyrics, by playing on the words. While it devolves into a song about needing a money to attract a man, I was caught by the poetry, “돈돈 니가 뭔데.” Money, money, what are you? or because it’s said with no honorific, could also be translated, just who do you think you are?

Just what do we think of money? Is it impossible to discern what our motivations to faith are? Were we bought with a price, a price that we intend to make good on somehow in material terms? Do we couch prosperity in the language of “God’s provision” to simply avoid the problematic passages in the New Testament regarding wealth, particularly as it applies to following Jesus? When we speak of stewardship, are we really talking about risk management? It just seems so strange to ask for commitment and wholehearted zeal when our institutions seem so uncommitted to risking to the same degree. We don’t see ourselves as a Robin Hood-like distribution channel of reallocating wealth to the poor, but almost as money managers. We have built an ethic that is indistinguishable to capitalistic objectives, rather than true risk taking. Is Christianity nothing more than generally accepted principles for a market economy?

How would we prove that it’s not?

And if the epicenter of Christian growth is in China, what does that say about what Americans and Asian American Christians could prophetically voice (particularly now in a time of economic stalling) to our brothers and sisters there?

My mother says that when something stupendously absurd hits you, you’re not sure whether to cry or laugh, and this theological/economic conundrums seems to be that type of something. And to completely dismiss the profundity of this question, I will proceed to post the aforementioned video which is insanely funny because of the two girls singing the song, “Money”. So laugh and cry.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

2 responses to “The New Protestants’ Ethic Is Quite Old

  1. Pingback: Seek the Ultimate over the Intermediate « Cogito, Credo, Petam

  2. nick l. ⋅

    “When we speak of stewardship, are we really talking about risk management?”

    Oh snap. You nailed it.

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