Review of “Abundant Harvest: Stories of Asian Lutherans”

Abundant Harvest: Stories of Asian Lutherans, eds. Edmond Yee and J. Paul Rajashekar (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2012).

To the average American Christian imagination, Africa is still the continent in need of missionaries. The slightly better informed imagination realizes that Christianity is already a vibrant reality in Africa, neck in neck with Islam for religious dominance. Europe’s Christianity is dying, South America is being traded between Catholics and Pentecostals, and North America we know all too well. But… Asia? Somehow Asia has fallen from the radar, or never got picked up on it in the first place.

Asia is indeed home to large numbers of Christians, but then it is home to the largest population of any continent—China and India together boast two and a half billion people. Over against the whole population, Christianity remains a modest phenomenon, except in the two countries where it is the main religion: the Philippines and East Timor. (A few Pacific Islands can claim Christian majorities as well.) South Korea is probably the next runner, percentage-wise. And amidst the scattered and small numbers of Christians in this staggeringly diverse area, yes, as it turns out, there are Lutherans, too.

In point of fact, Lutheranism has been in India for as long as it’s been in North America. Three centuries have seen a parade of remarkable figures, most notably those who have sought to indigenize Christianity through use of local artistic styles in both music and the visual arts. (LF has featured articles on the poet Vedanayagam Sastriar and the artist Solomon Raj.) India has had among the fastest growth of any Lutheran churches in the world in recent years. Equally significant, if not quite as old, are the Lutheran churches of Indonesia, with about five and half million members altogether. There are numerous other and smaller Lutheran churches throughout Asia, and though their numbers may not be as big, their accomplishments are disproportionately impressive to their size

It has not been easy to find reliable information on Asia’s Lutheran churches, much less all in one place. For that reason alone, Abundant Harvest: Stories of Asian Lutherans, is a great asset and sure to be the standard reference book for years to come. Editors Yee and Rajashekar divide the region into three parts: South Asia (Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India), Southeast Asia (Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar), and East Asia (China, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, and South Korea). Each section has a general introduction setting the political context and mission history for the region—usually a rather depressing story of Western incursions, though both India and China have Christian histories from long before the modern colonial period. Then in each section more detailed articles follow by a range of authors. Some of these focus on individual country stories, such as Indonesia or Korea. Others take different approaches to the history within a country, such that India receives attention both from the perspective of the “tribal” groups outside the Hindu caste system and from the perspective of women. The final essay (before the epilogue) treats Asians “in diaspora,” principally in North America, with the history of immigration groups and efforts to organize and assert a distinctive Asian voice within North American Lutheranism.

It is a bad habit of Western mission histories to talk at length about the Western missionaries but have little to say about the indigenous people. Yet in every case, missions only turn into churches and see real growth with the indigenous make Christianity their own, become the leaders, and inculturate the gospel. For this reason, the editors of Abundant Harvest have downplayed the already well-documented stories of foreign missionaries and emphasized instead the contributions of native workers. The sheer number of names impresses the reader with the truth that, indeed, the church is the people, and the local people, at that. Accounts range from miraculous healings leading to conversion to multi-generational Lutheran families. There are evangelists and Bible women pursuing a course of gospel preaching despite dreadful poverty alongside business entrepreneurs establishing radio programs, printing houses, and universities.

Abundant Harvest has an ambitious agenda and accordingly the weaknesses that accompany one. It is a reference book but also a collection of stories, and there is sometimes a jarring contrast between academic prose in one line and highly personal comments and memories in the next. Though a good number of figures in the histories are marked with an asterisk, indicating that longer biographies are to be found at the back of the book, the number of intriguing persons who get only a few lines and no biography is quite large, leaving this reader at least rather frustrated at times. This is, in part, the problem of social histories themselves—historians can only report what has been remembered and recorded, and unfortunately the stories of the “foot soldiers” in the gospel march are rarely thought interesting enough to jot down. I hope that the missing pieces will be filled in by eager doctoral students in the decades to come. I must also admit to a pet peeve when authors apologize for “lack of space” to pursue other interesting angles—in this case, thinner paper, a smaller and more appropriate font, and better layout would have solved a great deal of the space problem and made for a less unwieldy book.

The fact remains, though, that this is an important volume. It opens up the world of Asian Lutheranism in its staggering diversity, and yet shows the common themes that emerge. Luther’s Small Catechism has been important everywhere, and many Asian Lutheran scholars have emerged, both writing their own work and translating Luther into their local languages. (I was surprised not to find Kazoh Kitamori included in the volume, but I’m told that since he stayed in the forced-merger United Church of Christ in Japan after the Second World War instead of joining the re-formed Lutheran church, most Japanese don’t think of him as Lutheran.) Not surprisingly, an important and recurring theme is how to deal in a neighborly fashion with other religions and how to negotiate participation in or refusal of communal practices with religious overtones. Confessional loyalty over against ecumenical alliances also has a different quality in a situation of being a Christian minority, sometimes persecuted.

Some of these theologians produce works in English, most commonly in India where English serves as the lingua franca, but with most others we will have to wait until translations are available. I know now that they’ll be worth waiting for, and I look forward for more opportunities to learn from the journey of Lutheranism to the other side of the globe.

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