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Interview: Chloë Starr, theologian

13 April 2018

‘There are now more Christians in church on Sundays in China than in Europe’

I started learning Chinese on a gap year in Beijing in 1990-91, when my local church was still a couple of hundred old ladies squatting on little stools, chatting through the 45-minute sermon. I’ve carried on ever since. I read and speak classical and modern Chinese, and read Japanese.

My degrees are in Chinese literature, and I did my theology later, after the doctorate. When I was studying, there wasn’t any obvious way to work on Chinese theology. In retrospect, learning classical Chinese and having a basis in Chinese thought and tradition was probably the best preparation.

My book Chinese Theology provides an overview of the development of Chinese theology, and argues that it can’t be understood without a sense of Chinese literary form and the social meaning of the text. Chinese theology is written in many forms, and, since theology is moulded by the genres in which it is written, we need some sense of its literary form to grasp its meaning.

At Yale, where I am Associate Professor of Asian Christianity and Theology, about half of our students are doing M.Div. degrees for ministry, and about half MAs, mostly for research. Most of my students may be Asian or Asian American, but they’re not the only ones interested in one of the most dynamic regions of Christian growth and thought in the world.

Of course, language and culture are important in shaping theology: Otherwise, why would our thinking in the Christian West still be so influenced by Greek philosophy? I don’t think Paul was suggesting that the lack of discrimination against Gentiles by God means that their cultures and languages are effaced on conversion. All theology is contextual, not just “other people’s” theologies: liberation theologies, minjung, homeland, womanist. . .

In the book, I look at the situation of Christianity in different eras (late Ming, early Republic, early PRC, and post-1978), and study individual texts or authors, from the 16th century to the 21st. I discuss content — the doctrine of Creation, the Kingdom of God, or the nature of Church-State relations — but also look at how form shapes content, from biography to diary entry or micro-blog. There aren’t many systematic tomes, since it’s a pretty alien writing form in Chinese.

One of the urgent tasks of theological educators is to continue to diversify our curricula, so that Christians are much better versed in historical and contemporary streams of theology beyond the Augustine-Aquinas-Barth arc. Kitamori, Chung, Ting, and others should be integrated into systematics courses.

The earliest Christian communities in China were Syriac ones, documented from 635 CE; and there’s a recent resurgence in studies of Syriac monks, monasteries, and texts in the Tang. The Latin Church appears in the Yuan, and we’re familiar with stories of the Jesuits at court in the 16th and 17th centuries. From then, we’ve had continuous Christian communities through to the present.

There are now more Christians in church on Sundays in China than in Europe. Protestants overtook Catholics numerically in China only in recent decades, but it’s the rapid expansion of this community, especially the unregistered component, that’s drawing most attention now.

There’s much to celebrate, but the antagonisms between different groups —especially the more vocal opponents of the “State” Church from within the house-church sector and its resurgent Calvinist wing — is a real cause for concern, as is the growing divide on issues such as Church and State. Those parts of the Catholic Church which claim loyalty to Rome and those which formed the CCPA [Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association] need reconciliation, too.

My thesis book was on six courtesan novels of the late Qing (c.1860-1910): novels written by clients, ostensibly to warn others off the brothels. I was mainly interested in aspects of textuality, and how these novels construct a new relationship between self and literature, via the figure of the courtesan, at the turn of the 20th century.

The Quest for Gentility is about cultural traits and mores in late Imperial and modern China, looking at how aspirations (as opposed to actual status, wealth, or power) shape perceptions. Different eras and different groups in society have had very different ideas on what it means to be culturally or morally sophisticated — then just as now. The high-Communist era up-ended many previous values and created new hierarchies of social capital.

I was squashed between an older brother and younger sister, but, other than that, I had a pretty idyllic childhood in a County Durham village, with a year in a Japanese school.

I’m more at home in China than in the United States. They’re closer to Europe in ways of friendship and eating, and I’ve spent 20 years there, which is more than half my life. But it would be hard to live there. Beijng is so polluted that you can’t run or cycle without damaging your lungs.

I’m an academic; so pretty much all of life is spent working. But I escape by cycling, though it’s tricky in a New Haven winter. I do the occasional oil painting or gallery trip, enjoy walking along the beach, or taking a ski-day locally.

From liberal New England, I don’t have a good grasp of broader American Christianity, but I’ve read too many articles on the unexamined racism of white Evangelicals, the power of their allegiance to Fox News, and the backlash against Obama as an explanation for how Christians can vote for Trump against their own moral values not to give any credence to these.

A Chinese pastor, Liu Tongsu, argues that, as America has succumbed to the false gods of humanism, materialism, and individualism, its mantle as world leader is being handed over to China, since China’s new-found faith will bring blessing and strength from God. While I might not agree with his doctrine of providence, an American Christianity that is seen to support a Republican senator over his abuse victims, the NRA over gun victims, or health-care providers over the indigent is in trouble.

Meanwhile, my church in New Haven, one of seven Episcopal churches in the city, can afford only a 12-hour-a-week vicar, and is running a sizeable deficit. The church is racially mixed, has a jazz eucharist on Sundays, and hosts a food pantry and clothing closet in its basement that serve 300 people each week — which goes to show that it’s impossible to generalise about American Christianity.

I’m pretty keen on silence, especially if it’s traffic-free silence.

I despair about our indifference to the environment in the things we can do something about or campaign about: plastic consumption; short-distance car travel; pesticide over-use; Arctic drilling. . . Living in Trump’s US, and with Brexit ploughing ahead, I’m more with God in the days of Noah at the moment.

A good meal with friends and a lively discussion makes me happy — and being outsmarted or outrun by children.

I would choose Jesus to be locked in a church with. It would be a bit easier to talk to him in person, I’d hope, and it’s his house; so presumably he’d know the trap-doors and escape routes. But an alternative would be Candida Xu. She was a wealthy Christian, benefactor, and evangelist in 17th-century China, who built dozens of churches, organised women’s spiritual groups, and liaised with local officials to protect Jesuits. I’d ask how she understood her faith and role in the Church. I’d be just as interested to sit with Zhao Zichen and ask him about his faith after the Korean war when he took China out of the World Council of Churches, the experience of being laicised, and surviving the cultural revolution.

Dr Chloë Starr, Associate Professor of Asian Christianity and Theology at Yale Divinity School, was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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