The Power of Books in China – Even Calvinist Ones

souls-of-china-2017Last week I ordered a new book for the PRC Seminary library, one that has received some attention since its publication last year. It is titled The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao by Ian Johnson (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017).

The author’s website gives this description of the book:

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (2017) tells the story of one of the world’s great spiritual revivals. Following a century of violent anti-religious campaigns, China is now filled with new temples, churches and mosques–as well as cults, sects and politicians trying to harness religion for their own ends. Driving this explosion of faith is uncertainty–over what it means to be Chinese, and how to live an ethical life in a country that discarded traditional morality a century ago and is still searching for new guideposts.

This book is the culmination of a six-year project following an underground Protestant church in Chengdu, pilgrims in Beijing, rural Daoist priests in Shanxi, and meditation groups in caves in the country’s south.

Along the way, I learned esoteric meditation techniques, visited a nonagenarian Confucian sage, and befriended government propagandists as they fashioned a remarkable embrace of traditional values. These experiences are distilled into a cycle of festivals, births, deaths, detentions, and struggle–a great awakening of faith that is shaping the soul of the world’s newest superpower.

That may strike you as a rather broad look at the revival of religion in this vast land, maybe even disappointing. But did you know there is also a Calvinist resurgence in China and that the Reformed church is growing? I discovered this to my own surprise as I was cataloging it.  When I catalog a book, I always look at the chapters for subject ideas. When I did so with this book, I was surprised to see a chapter on Calvinism. But there it was – chapter 21 – “Chengdu: The New Calvinists.”

In the chapter Johnson focuses on three different men who are involved in growing Calvinism and the Reformed church in this city of Chengdu. There are some fascinating references to their solid creedal Christianity; one of the churches, for example, has this as one of  their statements:

We are Reformed-denomination Protestants. We accept the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), as the complete, balanced and authoritative expression of Christian faith.

And another congregation spent a summer reading and studying the Heidelberg Catechism.

But what also caught my attention was the importance of Calvinistic literature in that place. One of the men had a special vision and gifts, and used them to open Trinity Bookstore and begin Enoch Publishing. Johnson tells the amazing story of Peng Qiang:

After graduating in 1994, he returned to Chengdu and fell in with friends who had found an unusual niche publishing books. Most publishing houses were government run, and they were allotted a certain amount of ISBN numbers each year, allowing them to publish books. But these state-run companies had little idea what would attract readers. Most lost money. Some started selling their ISBN numbers to middlemen who used them to publish popular titles on doing business, self-help, and psychology. This was Peng’s role: a broker trying to figure out what excited and moved Chinese people, without running afoul of government censors.

…Peng began to hone his business model. Many books related to Christianity could be sold through the same model he used to sell pop-psychology books. All books still had to pass censorships, but a book on church history would be approved if given a straight historical title. But unlike most history books, these had a broad audience of Christians, making the publication profitable. So, too, books on Christian ethics or historical figures like Calvin and Luther. A book on Chinese theology would be banned, but if presented as part of Western history, ideas like Calvinism could be printed.

Amazing, the power of Reformed books in Communist China! A testimony to the sovereign grace for which Calvinism is known. Not surprisingly, given the greatness of our God, the church of Christ is being gathered and being reformed in that land.