The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, April 12, 2021

It’s Monday, April 12, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

China Wants to “Sinify” Christians: Why the Gospel Is So Threatening to Totalitarian Regimes

China is trying to sinicize Christianity. That is, it is seeking to remake Christianity in a Chinese form. Put more bluntly, it is seeking to revise Christianity in a way that is in keeping with the principles of the Chinese communist party. Therein, you see the problem. The Economist of London offers a very good report that is headlined: “Clearing Out the Foreign: Sinifying Christianity”.

In a subhead, the newspaper says the government is trying to make Chinese Christians more Chinese. Extremely interesting beginning in the Economist account, “In 1867, an English missionary, James Hudson Taylor, wrote a letter home defending his policy of encouraging fellow preachers in China to wear Chinese robes and the Manchu style pigtail.” By dressing in Western garb, he argued, they risked giving the impression that becoming a Christian meant becoming a foreigner. Taylor’s concern was justified, says The Economist. “Such was the scorn for those who embrace the faith that long before the communist party seized power in 1949, people used to say, ‘One more Christian, one fewer Chinese.’ Officials in China still mutter this phrase today.”

Now, in the foreground to our discussion here is the fact that the Chinese Communist Party, under its current leadership, has been determined to crack down on Christianity, not just Christianity by the way, but any theistic faith, or any cultural presence that would threaten the totalitarian ideology and allegiance of the Chinese communist party. Anything that will come between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party, the party has tried to eliminate. It has been ruthless. It has been rigorous, and it is now being driven by the diabolical system of social credit and even artificial intelligence by which the movements and relationships of Chinese people are tracked almost microscopically.

But that introduction of the article just takes us to the fact that even as in the 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party began “cutting Chinese Christianity’s links with foreign churches and requiring believers to worship only in government authorized venues.” More latently, the Chinese Communist Party has been engaged in an even more ruthless crackdown. Again, aided by the technological reach of the Chinese Communist Party. As the article in The Economist explains, there was something of a temporary melting of some of this opposition, but still, you had the fact that the Chinese communist party, at its most permissive, only recognized an official form of Christianity that was basically, officially and actually subservient to the communist party. Other forms of religion, including Christian house churches, are and were officially illegal.

The crackdown has been far more ruthless in recent years. The Economist reports, “All religions in China are being targeted by the sinification campaign.” Sinfication means, as in Sino, it means Chinese, the Chinese-ification campaign, you might say. It was launched in 2015 by the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. “Among ethnic minorities and the Western regions of Shin Shang and Tibet, these assaults have formed a part of a broader assault on cultural and religious identity.”

But the particular issue in this article is the attack upon Protestant churches, the repression against Protestant and Evangelical Christianity. We have seen the fact that there is nothing less than the attempted genocide of the Muslim Uyghur people in China, but we’re also looking at an active repression of Chinese Christians there and in particular Protestant Christians. Now, also in the background to this article, is that, quite lamentably, the Vatican has made a pact with the Chinese communist party and it allows the Chinese Communist Party to eliminate, for example, anyone who might be appointed a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. The precedent there is set for the fact that the Chinese communist party can block anyone it does not find acceptable for church leadership. The Economist notes that Protestants, Evangelicals, who do not have a Pope and do not have that kind of hierarchy are going to be much more difficult for the Chinese communist party to tame. I’ll simply state that nothing makes me more encouraged as a Protestant than that kind of statement.

What would sinfication, what would this process of making Chinese Christianity more Chinese than Christian look like? Well actually, we have seen recent reports that the Chinese Communist Party wants to retranslate the New Testament in such a way that the New Testament would be defanged as in any way in conflict with the absolute ideology of the Chinese communist party. Let’s just remind ourselves of something. That ideology is based in Marxist materialism. By its very definition, at its very foundation, it is not only atheistic, it is ruthlessly so.

The Economist explains what this signification would look like on the ground, “Even for many of those who attend official churches, the five-year plan’s emphasis on the need to integrate Christian theology with socialist ideology is grating.” It says, “Quotations should be used by preachers to promote core socialist values.” These principles should feature more prominently in their training. “Interpretations of the Bible should become more sinified, meaning presumably that they should help to bolster belief in socialism.”

So now readings of the Scripture are to be presented in a socialist light, and any form of Christian teaching is to be absolutely compatible with the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Now, there’s the problem. There can be nothing that is legitimately, authentically Christian that would not, in its essence, its theological nature, be in conflict with the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology. And here we see the basic problem, the basic sin of totalitarianism. That issue of totalitarianism really is based upon two fundamental precepts.

Number one, the government is in absolutely total control, control of the entire society. That means there is no part of the society outside the government, the regime’s control, and that would include of course churches, but there’s a fundamental issue number two that is even more basic. And that is that a totalitarianism of a Marxist variety, as is the case classically in the Communist Party in China, denies the very existence of the soul, denies the very existence of a soul that is outside of its control because by definition, the soul would be outside the totalitarian party’s control. Therefore, it is denied.

The article cites the house churches mentioning that some of them is now divided into smaller groups, again without official approval. The smaller groups more difficult to detect than the larger house churches, but we are told, “The government may lose patience, especially if, despite all its hostile signaling towards house church Christians, their numbers continue to grow rapidly.” The article cites Easton Law of Princeton Theological Seminary as saying that the faith of Chinese Christians “gives them purpose. It gives them ethical standards. It gives migrants a family away from home. What can the party do about that?”

Now, that’s a very interesting point. The Chinese Communist Party can promise all kinds of things, and it promises social control. It promises a strong China. It promises a resurgent Chinese power in the world. It promises even material prosperity. Whether it can deliver on those goods is another question, but that’s the promise. What can it not promise? It cannot promise any respect for the souls of its own people. It denies those souls. Professor Law, by the way of Princeton, points out that the repression now undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party may threaten the legitimacy of that party when it comes to many younger Chinese turning the younger generation, which is not its enemy, into its enemy.

Part II

How Much Should Christianity Be Contextualized in Various Cultures?

But at the end of the article, it points out that in another sense, Chinese Christianity is already Chinese. What does it mean by that? Well, let’s go back to the opening of this article because it raises some really important questions that aren’t actually recognized in this article. It is not insignificant that the missionary who was cited in the beginning of the article was Hudson Taylor. Hudson Taylor is one of the great missionary figures from the entire history of Christianity. Hudson Taylor established what became known as the China Inland Mission. He served in China in various terms of service for about 51 years, dying in China in the year 1905. You cannot tell the story of Christianity in Asia, much less than China, without Hudson Taylor and without the China Inland Mission.

The China Inland Mission, by the way, sprang up in the great 19th century resurgence of Christian missions. In this case, it grew up out of England, and it sent missionaries without denominational affiliation, but with a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The mission statement of the China Inland Mission was this, that the mission “was formed under a deep sense of Christ pressing need and with an earnest desire constrained by the love of Christ and the hope of his coming to obey his command, to preach the gospel to every creature. Its aim is,” according to the statement,” by the help of God, to bring the Chinese to a saving knowledge of the love of God in Christ by means of itinerate and a localized work throughout the whole of the interior of China.”

That was a part of the courage of these missionaries. It was the interior of China. In the age of empire, the imperial forces were mostly concerned with coastal China, with the great seaports with trade. It was a concern for reaching the Chinese people with the gospel of Christ that took the missionaries where the soldiers and the sailors and the financial figures did not go, and that was into the vast interior of China. And it was in that vast interior of that gigantic nation that missionaries such as Hudson Taylor faced the question, is it necessary for the Chinese to become foreigners if they become Christians? By becoming Christians, are they then accepting a foreign faith and embracing a foreign identity? That’s a very similar question to what the early Christians faced, even in the book of Acts. Must those who come to faith in Christ become Jews? Must men and boys who come to faith in Christ be circumcised?

And of course that great turning point in the book of Acts comes when the Holy Spirit led the apostles to understand that no, those who were Gentile converts to Christianity were converting to Christianity, not to Judaism. They were new creatures in Christ. One of the most profound truths of the gospel, one of the most powerful dimensions of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is explicitly not tied to race or ethnicity. It is not determined by the map. It is never rightly understood, defined by one’s nation. There is no theological existence to British Christianity or American Christianity or Portuguese Christianity, or for that matter, Chinese Christianity.

It is one gospel because Jesus Christ is the one, the savior of all who come to faith in him, and the church is God’s redeemed people in Christ wherever and whenever those believers are found. But you’ll notice the Hudson Taylor, and that’s why he’s in this article, he is cited because he did give advice to those preachers and missionaries with the China Inland Mission, that they should dress Chinese in order to make very clear that they were identifying with the Chinese people and that it was not necessary for the Chinese people to become less Chinese by the fact that they came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But this is actually more complicated. There are issues here that we might not see at first. For example, when we, I’ll just say we meaning Americans, I’m thankful, there are many people listening who are not right now in America or Americans, but let me speak to American Christians. When we in the United States became Christians, did we become less American? Well, here’s what we need to answer the question and say in one sense, yes. In one sense, if for no other reason, then when we came to faith in Christ, we became citizens of a heavenly kingdom, and that kingdom is eternal. It’s the coming thing. It’s not temporal. We will be citizens of the United States for some time. And I consider that a great honor and a privilege, but in Christ I will be his in his kingdom forever.

So, that’s a relativizing issue right there. But as Americans coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Christianity makes another distinction, and that is that we cannot accept any totalizing regime. Now thankfully, the United States is not that, but we do have to understand that it’s not so much government pressure, even though we’re having to watch that when it comes to many issues, for example, in the sexual revolution. But when it comes to the overarching pressure of American culture, it actually would be possible maybe even easy for Christianity to be co-opted in this country basically as just another artifact of American culture.

Now, again, that’s not automatic, but it is at least something we ought to recognize. So let’s ask the question. Let’s look at it not so much in the 19th century with Hudson Taylor. Let’s look at it in the 21st century in this story in The Economist. When someone in China today comes to faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, are they less Chinese? The answer to that must be that there is no reason they are less Chinese, but it is true that they can no longer recognize the ultimate reality in all of the cosmos as being the communist party of China, and that’s why you understand gospel Christianity is so threatening to totalitarian regimes wherever they are found, whenever they are found.

There are other very interesting questions here. They come down to what in missiology is often described as contextualization. To what extent can Christianity be, say, made Chinese or, for that matter, made American? Well, when it comes to dress, unless that dress has inherent theological significance, there doesn’t have to be any distinction. When comes to hairstyle, that can be something that is largely contextual. Although, the scripture makes clear, you should be able to tell the difference between a man and a woman. When it comes to language, of course there has to be some contextualization because language is, after all, something that is a vernacular. It takes the form of a society. That language is actually one of the major products of the culture. It also makes that culture possible. Language also creates an inside and an outside. If you understand the language, you’re inside. If you don’t understand the language, you’re outside. If you want to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, eventually you’ll have to reach them from the inside, from the inside of their own language.

To some extent, there are linguistic challenges. And that’s true. If you’re just going from English, say, to French, that’s not a jump of massive civilizational importance, but you’re talking about two different languages. And there is always at least something that is complicated when it comes to the translation, or of course you can have the statement that’s been made during the 20th century, that when you look at the United States and Great Britain, you’re looking at two people divided by a common language. Just consider the perplexity to an American who is told to put the groceries in the boot of the car. What in the world is that?

But just for the sake of time, we’re going to have to say that that contextualization cannot be taken to the extent that biblical truth is re-conceptualized in forms other than those that are found in scripture. You can’t have syncretism, for example, in which case you have some kind of mixture of local, existing religion and Christianity. By the way, Catholicism can, in some cases embrace that, but evangelical Christianity cannot. But just as Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, the gospel must be also. Our ambition, no matter where we are, our conviction, our determination and commitment no matter where we are, must be to preach the very same gospel that Jesus gave to the apostles and that the apostles preached. Any other gospel, as the apostle Paul says, is a false gospel. It is another gospel, an empty gospel.

But as we bring this part of the discussion to a close, it is just extremely illuminating and important to recognize that a communist party, a totalitarian party, the head of a totalitarian regime in China sees, as one of its main obstacles to its totalitarian ambitions, the very existence of biblical Christianity. Once again, we are reminded that the most astounding statement and the statement that will one day be made by every single human being who has ever lived is this, Jesus Christ is Lord. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Part III

What Is “Satanic Panic”? Why Christians Should Never Give the Satanic Too Much or Too Little Attention

But next, we turn from Christianity in China to religion, and I use that word specifically, religion in the United States of America. I look at a recent report by Aja Romano published at Vox. The headline, “Why Satanic Panic Never Really Ended.” The suggestion in this article is that in the 1980s and the 1990s, there was a satanic panic in the United States to find as, “the societal fear of the occult that troubled the U.S. and other parts of the world through the 1980s and into the early 1990s.” And Romano goes on to say, “The reality is, it never really ended.” Romano summarizes, “One of the most famous prolonged mass media scares in history, satanic panic, was characterized at its peak by fearful media depictions of godless teenagers and the deviant music and media they consumed. This in turn led to a number of high profile criminal cases that were heavily influenced by all the social hysteria.”

Romano continues, “Most people associate the satanic panic with so-called satanic ritual abuse, a rash of false allegations made against daycare centers in the eighties with the case of the West Memphis Three in the nineties, in which three teenagers whose wrongful conviction on homicide charges was based on little more than suspicion over their goth lifestyles. “At their core, satanic ritual abuse claims relied on overzealous law enforcement, unsubstantiated statements from children and above all, coercive and suggestive interrogation by therapists and prosecutors.”

Now let’s just look at the historical context here. Romano’s right. There was a satanic panic, and there was a panic over so-called satanic ritual abuse, but it wasn’t based in no historical reality. It did lead in the 1980s and the 1990s to some prosecutions that were obviously based upon panic rather than real crimes. It did lead to a fascination and a spirit of suspicion on the parts of many Americans. It did of course take many different forms as we think about this panic, but as even Romano has to recognize, there was a reality behind it.

For instance, Romano writes, “A number of factors contributed to the increased interest in and fear of the occult during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Manson cults operation in the late sixties culminated in a string of murders in the summer of 1969 that shocked the nation and put organized ritualistic killing on the brain.” Well, yes it did. I was alive then and let me tell you, that was a very horrible moment in the United it estates, and it was based in this kind of satanic abuse and satanic ritual.

Romano goes on and reports, “That same year,” that will be 1969, “organist-turned-occultist, Anton LeVay, published his philosophical treatise, the Satanic Bible, which plagiarized several sources and mostly regurgitated earlier philosophies of self-actualization and self-empowerment.” And the report goes on to say, “Accompanying the rise of Satanism as a recognized practice was the 1971 publication of Peter William Blatty’s best-selling novel, The Exorcist, and its blockbuster 1973 film adaptation, ‘With its claims of being based on a true story, The Exorcist profoundly impacted America’s collective psyche regarding the existence of demons and single-handedly transformed the popular Ouija Board from a fun harmless parlor game into a malevolent device, capable of inducing spirit possession, demonic infestation, or other paranormal activity.'”

Well, I’m not going to go much deeper into the article by Romano published at Vox. I’ll simply say that it is based upon real historical events, but it’s also based upon a real historical panic. The real historical events included Anton LeVay and the horrifying murders undertaken by the Manson cult. It also included fictional, but nonetheless culturally important events such as the publication of The Exorcist and the film that was indeed an adaptation of that novel, but there was something else going on in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Even at that point, there was a great spiritual hunger that was accompanied by a deep spiritual confusion in the United States. And of course, you’re looking at the sexual revolution. You’re looking at the development of all kinds of social movements in the United States. And you are looking at a sense of panic. That moral panic became an occultic, a satanic panic, but as this article makes clear, there was something behind that. There was a sense of America going out of spiritual control. There was a concern about the growing presence of cults and sects in the United States, S-E-C-T-S. Cult and sectarian movements that included everything from the Moonies of the Unification Church to Harry Krishna’s. You could go on and on.

But as a Christian theologian, I just wanted to step up and say, we are always looking at a dual danger. The danger is giving too much attention to the occultic, the demonic, the satanic, or too little. When you look at the victory of the devil, that victory comes by either being made too important or by being ignored. The Bible doesn’t ignore and the Bible certainly does not make the demonic, does not make Satan himself, does not make demons, does not make the occultic anything larger than that over which Jesus has triumphed.

But this article in Vox and the reality behind it that spans several decades is also an artifact of something else and that is a secularizing America, that is simultaneously secularizing and becoming more and more theologically confused. If nothing else, this reminds Christians of a great opportunity and indeed a profound responsibility, just as that faced by Hudson Taylor in establishing the China Inland Mission, to look at the world, including the United States, the nations of the West, the entire world as a mission field that calls us, a mission field in which the reality everywhere is spiritual confusion, confusion that must be confronted with the clarity of the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere to everyone until Jesus comes.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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