The media’s routine focus on China—the superpower tensions with the U.S., the power struggles within—might broaden its horizons by encountering Chloë Starr, YDS assistant professor of Asian theology.
The China she knows reveals not only a long tradition of subtle classical literature but also a teeming modern Christian theological scene and an evolving cultural synergy with the wider world.
“Impressions of China have changed greatly,” she says. “In Europe, secondary schools are teaching Mandarin as a matter of course. Confucius Institutes (organizations aligned with the Chinese government to promote Chinese culture) are spreading. For many in the U.S., China is perceived as an economic threat, but that feeling depends on the part of the country you’re in. On the West Coast, there’s lots more contact and interaction. As China sees it, it is taking its rightful place among the nations in a way it hasn’t in hundreds of years.”
The interest and ferment extend to Christianity in China, where believers celebrated the 80 millionth copy of the Bible printed by an authorized Chinese publisher there in 2010.
Starr has examined congregational life in China up close during numerous visits, from rural churches in Guizhou province to an uptown Beijing church accommodating a thousand people in each of its five daily services, and she has watched the changes in service style and size over the last two decades.
She is writing a book now on Chinese intellectual Christianity that examines themes and crosscurrents that have catalyzed the faith there during the last century. For a couple of decades now, she says, theology in China has enjoyed a fresh era of renewal and reassessment—whether grappling with post-structuralist ideas about language or debating the meaning of a Christian identity independent of past Western missionary patterns and traditional Chinese modes of thought.
“Christian theologians are engaging contemporary life today, not so much the past,” she says.
A sense of momentum characterizes the broader world of Asian theological thought on either side of the Pacific. Asian American theology has surged along with Asian American immigration and political heft. Substantial percentages of evangelicals on college campuses today are Asian American.
“Asian American theologians are becoming more vocal and visible,” she says. “The literature has taken off in the last decade.”
Joining the YDS faculty in 2009, Starr offers courses that include “Chinese and Japanese Christian Literature,” “Asian American Theology,” “Chinese Protestantism,” and “Introduction to East Asian Theology.” She led the China Travel Seminar that has taken groups of YDS students and staff to far-flung Chinese academic and cultural destinations.
YDS is already considered a preeminent world center for studying Chinese Christianity because of the school’s China mission holdings. That position is now further consolidated by a recent project in partnership with Hong Kong Baptist University to digitize Chinese archival material that will open vast amounts of 20th and 21st century data to scholars. Cindy Lu is Librarian for Asian Christianity.
Starr has immersed herself in Asian culture since her childhood in England. Both her parents have Chinese degrees. She spent a year in school in Japan as a young girl, then taught English for a year in Beijing between secondary school and university, helping prepare her for an undergraduate degree in Chinese Studies at the University of Cambridge. She has a D.Phil. from Oxford in Oriental Studies.
Her research over the years suggests the range of religious and literary themes served up by the long and turbulent dynastic histories of imperial China and by the 20th century revolutionary period that followed. Her book Red-light Novels of the Late Qing (BRILL, 2007) examines fictional strategies and texts of courtesan culture from around 1850-1910. A 2007 book she co-edited, The Quest for Gentility in China: Negotiations Beyond Gender and Class (Routledge 2008), explores the power of the moral code of gentility in Chinese life across four centuries up until 1999.
Starr also edited the book Reading Christian Scriptures in China (T&T Clark, 2008), a scrutiny of how the Bible has been read over the centuries in a nation traditionally steeped in Confucius, Buddha and—since the revolutionary 20th century—Marx and Mao. In the post-imperial period of the 1920s, an unusually creative time in Chinese Christian theology, biblical interpretation started mirroring tensions within Chinese society about what direction the future should take, she writes. Some Christian thinkers were committed to self-cultivation along Confucian lines, while others drew from scripture a call for political action, regarding Jesus as a revolutionary hero.
That Republican era of the 1920s and 30s is a favorite period for her, she says.
“…Theologians were engaging with the revolutionary fervor all around them, and at the same time producing masterpieces like Zhao Zichen’s Life of Christ, which draws on pre-modern Chinese literary traditions.”
Currently she is also translating and editing an anthology of Chinese Christian theological writings from the 7th century to the 20th, perhaps 20-30 theologians in all. Driving her effort is the need to bring a rich but neglected thread of Christian thought to the global conversation.
“A dearth of knowledge on Chinese theologians and biblical exegetes is to the detriment of all: it hampers China from playing a full part in global theology, and it depletes the West,” she writes in Reading Christian Scriptures in China.
“If China is soon to be the nation with the greatest number of Christians on earth, this alone might render its Christian heritage and beliefs of some import to smaller neighbors in the old Christian heartlands.”
Whether the subject in the classroom is Korean feminist theory or a theology of pain in the work of Kazoh Kitamori, Starr says she hopes to bring a sense of Asia’s vast but relatively unknown Christian sensibility to her YDS students.
“I want people to gain a knowledge base but also be able to use Asian theology as a way to examine Western assumptions that are considered normative and critique them,” she says.
“The aim is to learn something about the rest of the world. A perspective from the U.S. isn’t the only way to think about life or Christ or the church.”