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Book Reviews

Simon Chan: Grassroots Asian Theology. Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up.

Grassroots Asian Theology. Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up. Simon Chan. IVP Academic. 2014. ISBN 9780830840489 [eBook 9780830895441].

This Review was first published in Essentials Autumn 2015

Simon Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.

This book is an attempt to identify and discuss grassroots theologies in Asia. In doing so Chan aims to draw from Catholic and Orthodox sources because “they offer a broader and more solid basis for contextual theologies compared with what goes on in much of mainline Protestantism and evangelicalism today.” (8). His method is to use traditional theological loci and sketch elitist theologies and compare with them the writings found in sermons and other grassroots sources. This opening statement gives a clue to the critique he offers of the old European liberal theology that sometimes seems to masquerade as Asian.

Chan dislikes the terms 'Western' and 'Eastern'. Too often they just disguise one's likes or dislikes. His presupposition is that “an Asian theology is about the Christian faith in Asia.” (10). This means that the apostolic tradition is normative. To start a new trajectory apart from this tradition produces a gnostic church which, while appearing open and tolerant to other faiths is incapable of serious dialogue with them.

 

Chan wants to develop contextual theologies that are true to the lived experience of ordinary believers. This “ecclesial experience constitutes the primary theology of the church.” (16). He takes this approach to avoid two pitfalls: it avoids conceiving theology as purely objective facts or propositions; and it does not consider individuals as the primary agents of ding theology.

He distinguishes ecclesial experience from cultural experience, and in so doing provides helpful critiques of various liberationist and other culture-specific theologies. This section of his opening chapter is worth the price of the book, as it helps undermine the false claims of much of what has posed as Asian theology. He says it is elitist theology with an enlightenment base.

He has quite a bit to say about Folk Christianity, especially the Pentecostal-charismatic version. It is “an example of perhaps the most successful contextualization of the gospel the world has ever seen.” (31). He sees that it has much in common with folk religion in general. He offers a helpful critique of it and shows how it sits in a 'middle zone' between ultimate questions handled by the 'high religions' and the observable world handled by science. To label it syncretistic and superstitious is to fail to see how it has adapted to its environment. Chan acknowledges that this is complex but claims “that folk Christianity has more to teach us about Asian theology than what elitist Asian theologians are saying.” (35).

He takes up the question of social engagement, which elitist theologians regard as the main subject and shows that there are other ways than direct engagement. He uses Barth and Tillich as different models of social engagement to discuss how Christians are engaging on the ground (he prefers Barth's approach). All of that is in the first chapter.

The rest of the book uses the traditional centres of God, Humanity, Christ, Holy Spirit etc. to discuss how grassroots theology deals with its contexts. So the doctrine of God is discussed in relation to an Asian Islamic context (such as Malaysia), an Indian Hindu context, Chinese religions and God in relation to primal religions.

The strength of the book is that it is earthed in the real world of Christianity in Asia and grapples with the ways in which Christianity has been adapted and shaped by its contexts and the challenges it poses to those contexts. The book is a theological book because it keeps on going back to the apostolic tradition of the scriptures to evaluate and critique. It will be very helpful to anyone who is involved in an Asian context, whether actually in Asia or in an Asian expatriate context.

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