As the self-sufficient inventors of paper, printing, compass, and gunpowder, cultural Chinese puzzle over why we westerners think they need Jesus. I’Ching Thomas is often asked by fellow Chinese Christians “how they can relevantly share with their loved ones that this man, who is from a foreign land and from a culture that is equally distant, is the Savior their heart is meant for” (p. 5). Great question! To answer, Thomas wrote Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing. Formerly of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Thomas is a Malaysian-Chinese Christian who speaks and writes on apologetics for Eastern cultural contexts.
In Chapter 1 (“Why You’re Talking but We’re Not Hearing”), Thomas is realistic about the obstacles. Not only do cultural Chinese have trouble perceiving their need for Jesus, they also have difficulty forgetting the door into China was first blown open by Western colonizers and then used by Christian missionaries. According to the perception of one Chinese university president: “Buddha rode into China on a white elephant, while Jesus rode in on a cannonball” (p. 6). Thomas mentions another obstacle. Western Christians have done a poor job comprehending Chinese culture. Moreover, even when missionaries present the gospel in understandable terms, their tone does not accord with the subjective longings and traditional values of cultural Chinese.
Although the book is short, the solution is far from a shortcut. Thomas does not list easy-to-remember steps for an effective gospel presentation. Rather she walks us through the far more difficult—but far more rewarding—process of contextualization. Chapter 2 helps us in “rethinking the good news.” The key word in the chapter is “worldview.” We Christians must rediscover our faith as more than just a set of doctrines or a moral code. Rather, it is a view of all reality that should be lived out with passionate conviction. As such, we can present Christianity to cultural Chinese as something that is far more than a transactional, individualistic me-and-God relationship. It is a worldview that fulfills our deepest longings and harmonizes our estranged relationships.
Chapters 3–5 describe the three religions that most define Chinese culture: Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Daoism invites adherents to calmly return to the harmony of the indefinable Dao, as depicted by the interaction of yin and yang. Confucianism promises adherents a return to golden-age, holistic harmony as they follow the rules of propriety (li). Buddhism diagnoses reality as hopelessly permeated with suffering; yet, one can follow any number of buddhas and bodhisattvas into nirvanic escape.
In chapters 6–8, Thomas presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Chinese longings. She answers the question, “Why shouldn’t they find fulfillment in their homegrown religions?” Even through the collective wisdom of Buddha, Laozi, and Confucius, she says “Confucius’s Utopia” (ch. 6) has eluded them. Such a vision was built on the sands of over-optimism about humanity and over-reliance upon governmental benevolence.
Thankfully, not only is “Yahweh’s Shalom” (ch. 7) a grander vision, but it is actually realistic. Because Christians are naturally better people? No. Shalom works because it calls out sin and calls on God. And the God called upon is no mere noble ideal, but a real, historic person. Rather than blissfully banking on governmental officials to develop love for “the least of these,” biblical shalom originates in God himself, who has entered into “our messy sin-infected world so that he can usher in the era of the new creation” (p. 85). In Jesus, “the homecoming to shalom has begun and humanity is on a path that anticipates and leads toward this vision” (p. 92).
Chapter 8 (“Jesus: The Noble Path to Human Flourishing”) gets practical. It highlights the gospel’s power to restore relationships in all areas of life. Thomas then invites us to locate biblical truths within Chinese culture. Finally, she explores what Christianity offers a people who want pragmatic, lived-out solutions.
What are the book’s weaknesses? All that comes to mind is that it has too many absorbing insights, personal stories, and helpful explanations to be branded as a typical textbook. You guessed it––these are all strengths. My only true complaint is that it could have been longer. Finishing the book makes me want to interview Thomas in order to glean any additional contextualizing tips she has that did not make it into the book. Furthermore, I would like her to further flesh out potential bridges to Chinese honor-shame culture such as “Christ’s shame-bearing death” and “honor-gaining resurrection” (p. 117).
The book left this reviewer feeling both encouraged and uneasy. I was encouraged because there are ways to help cultural Chinese discover how their longings are satisfied and their values are fulfilled in Jesus. There is no shame in being both Chinese and Christian. What an exciting and worthy challenge to take up!
Why would one be uneasy? Thomas concludes that the traditional Chinese religions do not work for them. She gives examples demonstrating moral inadequacies in Chinese culture (e.g., the Confucian ideal remains unmet). As lofty as their ideals are in theory, Chinese people need Jesus. The uneasy upshot of such logic, on the other hand, is that we Christians lose opportunities to argue that Jesus has showed us the true way to live, regardless of how inadequately we Christians live out our faith. To be fair—and to be faithful evangelists—we greatly need Jesus too.