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This wooden relief by Zhang Wanglong, carved on a single panel of antique camphor wood, depicts the life of Jesus through 75 intricately detailed scenes.

Zhang Wanlong's magnificent twelve-foot camphor wood "Life of Jesus" in high relief, with its seventy-five intricately detailed scenes inspired by the gospels, welcomes visitors to the Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China. This and other impressive religious works created by Chinese Christian artists —including paper cuttings, examples of micro-calligraphy, and linen scrolls—display biblical interpretations with uniquely Chinese characteristics. The sound of the Yang Qin, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument played by skilled Chinese musicians, wafts throughout the exhibit, creating the sensation of being in another time and place.

Beyond the indigenous artistic interpretations, however, the modern record of Bible distribution in China is the exhibit's main focus. Silkscreen panels illustrate the great lengths that Chinese Christians go to bring Mandarin-language Bibles to Chinese citizens throughout the country. Pictures of smiling, bicycling, Bible-carting Chinese with various captions—"happy riding," "cheerfully transporting bibles" or "the view here is great!"—showcase the diverse methods used by the China Christian Council (CCC) and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) to bring Bibles to Chinese living in rural areas. The exhibition also emphasizes the multi-lingual translations of the Good News Bible provided to minority groups in China such as the Dai and Yi peoples. Pictures of braille Bibles and sign-language recitations of scripture are also present. "The purpose of holding this exhibition is to bear witness to God's blessings and guidance in the Bible ministry of Chinese churches,"[1] explains a pamphlet given to visitors at the exhibition.

With its opening in late April at the Crystal Cathedral in Greater Los Angeles, the Bible Ministry Exhibition is being held for the first time outside of China and Hong Kong. After its initial presentation at the Cathedral, the exhibit moved to Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. According to coordinator Ma Hongzhi, the Atlanta site was chosen for its "Bible Belt" location and the promise of support by former President Jimmy Carter.[2] Following its stop in Atlanta, the exhibit moves to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. The cities were also chosen by the exhibit coordinators to reflect the geographic and cultural diversity of the United States; the chosen sites attempt a bridge toward ecumenism, which is also evidenced by members of each individual hosting committee.[3]

Despite these attempts at (Protestant) ecumenism, the evangelical flavor presented at the exhibit is demonstrated from the visitors' initial contact with the exhibit, whose websites and pamphlets boast figures such as "40 million copies of the Bible already printed and distributed in China ... still growing."[4] Indeed, Presbyter Ji Jianhong, Chairperson of the National Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee, states that "all ministries of the churches in China originate from the Bible, are based on the Bible and are committed to the Bible. In particular, the ministry of Bible publication and distribution in China has always been blessed by God."[5] Volunteers from the hosting sites handed out a Good News Translation of the Gospel of John, along with other pamphlets, to each exhibit visitor. The first page of the bilingual Mandarin-English translation reminded readers to continue "looking forward to and praying for Beijing 2008 Olympic Games," a statement that emphasizes that not only are the activities of the churches in China "blessed by God," but so are those of the Chinese government.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council organize these publications. The guiding principles of the TSPM—self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation— have, according to the TSPM booklet Protestant Churches in China, allowed Chinese churches to "enter into a post-denominational period," ultimately leading to the complete disintegration of the "institutional Protestant denominations."[6] Those who "insist on the Three-Self Principles, love both the country and the churches and have certain theological accomplishments through a specific training mode within the churches" occupy the leadership of TSPM.[7] Exhibit literature does not specify what the specific training entails, but the Executive Secretary General of the National Committee of the TSPM, Rev. Mei Kangjun, assured me that it is based in "bible knowledge."[8]

The Reconstruction of Theological Thinking, CCC/TSPM's more recent endeavor, is to "set up the correct understanding of the Bible."An interview with Rev. Mei Kangjun revealed that this entails "letting the whole bible speak," reminding people that the "Bible is not just for [the] Christian Church, it is for all Chinese." To these ends, Rev. Kangjun asserts that "the church should be included, not isolated, in this multi-cultural [Chinese] society." By emphasizing three steps—1) that the Bible speaks differently in different epochs; 2) that the [Christian church in China] is to be "improved by the Bible itself"; and 3) that Bible offers social implications for all Chinese—Christians in China might begin to make their faith relevant to the culture in which they live, especially ensuring that they are doing so in accordance with government standards. As the principal exhibit pamphlet explains, "some Christians and meeting points [e.g., churches] still do not have regular ties to the CCC and TSPM. Nevertheless, we are still pleased to work with those who adhere to basic Christian doctrine, and who are loyal to China and abide by its laws."[9]

Bishop K. H. Ting, president of the Union Theological Seminary in Nanjing, appears to be the most prolific and authoritative Bible interpreter of the Christian Church in China. His publications, How to Read the Bible and 100 Questions and Answers in the Christian Faith, as well as How to Identify Heretics, have been distributed widely in China and provide common study materials for seminarians and faculty at the various regional seminaries and Union Theological Seminary in Nanjing, the main Christian seminary in China. His newest book, God is Love, is available at the exhibit. The Tian Feng monthly publication serves as the "one and the only national periodical for churches in China," and, according to the exhibit, is "rich in its content that contains reports of church developments both at home and abroad, results of theological research and devotional witnesses"[10] and claims over one hundred thousand annual subscriptions.

"[The] Gospel should not be spread by mouth only," states the exhibition's literature: "Ministry of publication plays a very important role in the development of churches."[11] According to Rev. Mei Kangjun, the Amity Printing Press of Nanjing and the Ai Ji (Loving Christ) Printing Press in Shanghai develop and coordinate the printing and distribution of Chinese Bibles, hymnals, and "various kinds of spiritual books" in cooperation with Cook Publications, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This partnership may explain the relatively pale color of Jesus' skin. It struck me that this Jesus' European facial traits bear little resemblance to the majority of Chinese to whom these books are marketed. Whether intended or not, the several children's "products" distributed by the companies enlightens Chinese children about the ethnicity of their blue-eyed "personal Savior" who eagerly invites young blonde children to sit upon his lap to hear his teachings.

To the postcolonial interpreter whose focus on "ordinary readers" often guides her contextual interpretation of the biblical texts, it appears the original artistic expressions—such as Wanlong's high relief wood carving—offer alternative interpretations to complement CCC/TSPM's rather monolithic spiritual publications, which are likely influenced by its relationship with the Chinese government. These artistic works carefully reflect the culture and ethnicity of various Chinese peoples, and the manner in which the chosen texts are contextualized and depicted from the standpoint of different Chinese gives the biblical scholar access to the diverse ways in which one text may speak to a community of interpreters. CCC/TSPM's efforts to help "the Bible ... reach every Christian and be available to everyone who wants to buy a copy" will likely help increase availability of the biblical texts for ordinary Chinese readers. Nevertheless, the limited publications that often travel concomitantly with the Bible surely damages the potential for original Chinese interpretation of the Bible and what these potential interpretations offer to postcolonial biblical scholars. In sum, a mass distribution of "interpretive aids" may enjoy authority over the text itself, thus becoming "A Light to [Original Readers'] Path's" more than the scripture that inspired them.

Sara Hayden, Columbia Theological Seminary

The exhibit will have visited the following US cities:

Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, CA, April 27 - May 4, 2006 Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, May 19 - 24, 2006 The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, June 5 - 12, 2006

Notes [1] The Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China: A Lamp to My Feet, A Light to My Path (Shanghai: CCC/TSPM, 2006), 7.
[2] Personal interview with Ma Hongzhi, Coordinator of the Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China. May 23, 2006. Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church.
[3] Each hosting committee includes members from the individual hosting sites, as well as pastors, coordinators, and academicians from various Christian backgrounds. Still, the exhibit hosting committees boast a largely conservative Christian membership.
[4] For a close look at the exhibit publicity (including a three minute video!), visit  www.chineseprotestantchurch.org.cn.
[5] The Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China, 2.
[6] Protestant Churches in China (Pamphlet developed by the National Committee of Three Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China; Shanghai: CCC/TSPM, 2006).
[7] Protestant Churches in China.
[8] Personal interview with Rev. Mei Kangjun. May 23, 2006. Trans. Ma. Hongzhi. The Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China. Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Rev. Kangjun is also Chief Editor of the Tian Feng Editorial Department of the CCC/TSPM.
[9] Protestant Churches in China, 16.
[10] Protestant Churches in China, 16.
[11] Protestant Churches in China.

Citation: Sara Hayden, " "Not spread by mouth only": The Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=539

 
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