In 1992, Bei Cun, considered to be one of China’s leading avant-garde writers, did something that really shocked his readers and admirers: He converted to Christianity.
But given the explosive growth of Christianity in China, it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
If you haven’t heard of Bei Cun, that’s okay. Neither had I, probably because his work hasn’t been translated into English. I only learned of his story because my friend Roberto Rivera recently read Philip Jenkins book, “The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South,” which tells Bei’s story.
After becoming a Christian, Bei wrote what Jenkins calls a “Kafkaesque story” entitled “The Marriage of Zhang Sheng.” In it, the protagonist, a scholar, opens a Chinese-language Bible and happens upon Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”
The passage leaves Zhang’s “intellectual assumptions in ruins.” Bei, just like his literary creation and hopefully his readers, interprets it as pointing out “the failure of relying upon mere human ideologies that neglect God.”
In an officially communist state, this is an “explosive” thing to say. The story ends with Zhang embracing Christianity just as Bei did.
In China, intellectuals and the avant-garde are running toward Christianity, while their Western counterparts tend to run away from it, if they’re not denouncing it.
It’s not just intellectuals and the avant-garde. In his award-winning book, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” Evan Osnos writes that China is “in the midst of a full-fledged revival.”
While Osnos mentions Christianity mostly in passing, his mentions hint at a remarkable story. He says that there are “sixty to eighty million Christians.” It’s so large that “as [he] traveled around China, [he] stopped being surprised by [his] encounters with Christians.”
These numbers are even more astounding when you take recent Chinese history into account. At the time of the Communist takeover in 1949, there were an estimated five million Christians in China.
The Communists, as Osnos tells us, set out to destroy China’s old belief systems, including its small Christian community, and by the time of Mao’s death in 1976 had largely succeeded. Even after Mao’s death, Christians are still subject to harassment, arrest, and imprisonment for practicing their faith.
Yet there are now as many Christians as there are members of the Communist Party. By some estimates there’ll be more Christians in China than in the U.S. by 2030. And this doesn’t take into account the level of commitment required to be a Christian in China. Think about it: being a member of the Communist Party comes with real political and economic benefits. Being a Christian invites discrimination and even a knock on the door in the middle of the night.
So why the explosive growth of Christianity in China? While a change in economic policies and the individual pursuit of fortune could address China’s economic problems, it could not provide people or the nation with a “sense of purpose.”
So what emerged was a “spiritual void.” For many Chinese, that void is being filled by Jesus Christ.
This puts the Communist Party, however, in a bind. On one level, they know that Christianity is good for China, especially in the area of morals. On the other hand, they’re afraid of a movement they can’t control.
Extraordinary things are happening. I pray you find this as exciting and encouraging as I do.
— by Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.