A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China
Rodney Stark (1934- ) is the distinguished professor of the social sciences and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and honorary professor of sociology at Peking University in Beijing. He is perhaps best known for his book The Rise of Christianity (1996) and his suggested theory that early Christianity grew primarily through gradual individual conversion by means of social networks of family and friends. Rodney Stark’s latest work, written alongside co-author Xiuhua Wang, A Star in the East combines the sociological and historical backgrounds of Dr. Stark with the doctoral research of Xiuhua Wang on the unexpected rise of Christianity in China.
This book provides a sweeping history of missions in China combined with recent, reliable statistics on the effects of the rise of Christianity as well as subsequent implications. In 1966, due to the changed political climate of the Cultural Revolution in China, the church went into hiding, but not into hibernation (43). How had Christianity faired prior to 1966 and what can be the explanation for its rapid growth afterward? These questions are considered at length in this short work.
The authors begin by explaining the purpose of their work. “Using reliable data, we challenge previous theories about religion in China and shed new light on those groups converting to Christianity... [this book] explores how and why this religion is growing at such a rapid rate and also speculates on its future growth” (xi). These statements provide the scope of the work to be accomplished in this modest volume of only 145 pages.
The first chapter begins by considering the problems faced in such a study of China’s recent “religious awakening” (2). Unfortunately, many discussions of the religious developments in China “have not been based on reliable statistics, properly interpreted” (2). Because of this, many have made wild predictions and have “encouraged a good deal of nonsense” (2). Two major surveys (2001 and 2007) are then explained as the foundation for this work. The difficulties, however, are not solved by merely considering these recent studies. Even these recent surveys show an interesting phenomenon that causes difficulties to those wishing to interpret the outcomes correctly. As the authors explain, in the 2007 survey, 72 percent of those who claimed no religion had, within the last year, “venerated ancestral spirits by their graves” (4). Furthermore, many Chinese do not see Confucianism as a religion, but rather a philosophy (5). It seems that most Chinese define “religion as belonging to an organized religious group” (5). Subsequently, for the Chinese, claiming no religion does not necessarily mean they are irreligious.
Christianity has clearly been growing at an astonishing rate in China. But, there is a great deal of disagreement as to just how astonishing the growth has been. Some have suggested that there are currently 16 million Christians in China, while others have suggested as many as 200 million (10). It would seem that the data from the surveys suggests a more accurate number to be between 50–70 million as of 2007 (11). Even if we take the lowest number, the growth rate has been phenomenal.
The book then turns to a short history of Christian missions in China from 1860–1950. A surprising amount of statistical evidence is available from the Protestant missions endeavors of those years, but not so for the Catholic work. The wonderful historical and biographical elements of this chapter will be fascinating to most readers. Some of the more interesting aspects of this chapter include the significant amount of single women missionaries in China, the difficulties of Catholic missions, and how various Chinese political movements affected the number and type of missionary endeavors. It is fascinating to realize that Catholic missions to China began much earlier and subsequently had a more significant membership for many years, yet Protestants are by far the modern denomination of choice for Chinese Christians (26–27).
Having looked at the history of Christian missions, the repression of Christianity in China is then considered. For several years after coming to power, the Communist regime allowed certain missionary and religious enterprises, but in 1966, Mao Zedong changed all of that. Christianity was
“forced into hiding, but not into hibernation” (43). As the authors assert, the expulsion of missionaries and persecution of Christianity may have been the “most beneficial event for the success of the Christianity in China” (44). The expulsion of missionaries forced the Chinese churches to become self-governing and self-sustaining. As the government imposed more restrictions, the churches seemed to move farther underground. One of the highlights of this chapter is the consideration of many national pastors who came to prominence at this time.
The authors then seek to tackle a fascinating problem. Why does Christianity seem to have “such a great appeal to the most educated Chinese” (76)? The statistics are given that prove the more educated are much more likely to be Christian than any other religion, and the least educated are far less likely to be Christian. Social scientists are fond of looking to deprivation theory as the primary impetus for movement toward religion. The idea is simply that those who are in material poverty will look to religion for solace, and subsequently the poorer classes will always be the most willing to consider a new religion. Against this idea, the authors suggest that spiritual deprivation is the more likely explanation, and those who are more intelligent and wealthy o en consider their spiritual lack as physical gains do not satisfy their deepest longings (81). The authors suggest that Christianity initially grows most prevalently in the educated classes and give case studies of several countries to test their hypothesis (86–90). These pages offer much food for thought.
Consideration is then given to various factors potentially effecting Chinese Christian growth. Rural and urban settings are considered as well as age and gender. Interestingly, gender is the only category that shows a significant variation (103).
The final chapter will be intriguing to all readers as the authors consider the future prospects of Christian growth in China and the potential consequences of such growth. While according to the most recent survey (2014), the rate of growth does not seem to have continued quite so strongly as before, the growth rate is still significant and future prospects are intriguing to consider.
While some of the ideas of Rodney Stark’s previous work are present in this volume, the reader need not study Stark’s other works in order to fully appreciate this volume. Perhaps the main criticism of this volume is its length. Many readers will be wishing for more and it is hoped that as further data become available, the book might be expanded. Stark and Wang provide a much-needed resource for those interested in the current spiritual awakening in China. The conclusions are based on sufficient data to please the missiologist and sociologist alike, while not being overly technical for anyone interested in the topic. Christian readers will be especially encouraged, non-Christians will be intrigued, and all readers will be prodded to further consideration of long-held ideas concerning religious growth.