The Death of Chairman Mao – History for September 9

Photo by manos koutras on Unsplash

On this date in 1976, Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao, founder of the communist People’s Republic of China, died at the age of 82.  Some look at Mao’s death as a positive turning point for Christianity in China, since under Mao China had expelled all Western Christian missionaries between 1949 and 1953.  However, while it is impossible to come up with precise numbers across a 3.7 million square mile country, Christians probably were about 1 percent of China’s population when Western missionaries were kicked out, but by the 1980s about 5 percent of the population went by Christ’s name.  The Christian population grew by ten times, while the overall population doubled.  How did this happen?

Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, authors of the book “Clouds of Witnesses” say the key to this growth was “the resilience of the Chinese believers themselves…securely rooted in Chinese life before Mao.” [1]  In expelling missionaries, Mao was in part responding to “treaty ports” created at the end of the 1839-42 Opium War.  Through these ports foreign powers had extra territorial rights, allowing influences including missionaries to come in, but these ports also allowed opium to flow freely into China from Western countries.  Therefore, in the mind of many Chinese, Christianity became linked with both Western imperialism and opium addiction.  When Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses” he may have been thinking of this connection.  But native Chinese believers, sometimes planted by Europe-based evangelizing organizations like China Inland Mission, remained behind and spread resilient forms of Christianity that were attractive to the Chinese population.

John Sung
Several of these Chinese Christians are profiled by Noll and Nystrom, including John Sung who lived from 1901 to 1944, before Mao’s communist revolution.  Around Christmas 1926, Sung heard child evangelist Uldine Utley preach a sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in New York, near where he was attending Union Theological Seminary.  This sermon, along with other influences, countered the liberal Christianity he was being taught where the Bible was just “a collection of myths.”  He returned to China, determined to spread the gospel in the land of his birth with frenetic energy.  In a one-year period in 1931-2, Sung and a small group of missionaries “traveled over 50,000 miles, held 1,200 meetings, preached to more than 400,000 people in thirteen provinces, registered more than 18,000 ‘decisions’” for Christ.  Many of these new Christians formed traveling bands themselves.  Sung is considered the last great evangelist in China and Southeast Asia before Mao’s reign. 

Dora Yu
Even earlier, another driver of this resilient, Chinese Christianity was Dora Yu (1873-1931).  Dora’s ministry benefitted tremendously from a 1905 decision by Dowager Empress Cixi to replace China’s traditional Confucian civil service examinations with general public schools.  Under this system, mission-run schools became a valued option, and one of Dora’s early ministries was to train “Bible women” to not only educate women generally, but also to teach them the Bible, pray with them, and teach them to live by faith.  Mostly traveling by foot, in “1903, Dora Yu visited with 925 women and 211 children.”  Later, her ministry grew and she became famous for itinerant preaching, reaching many others who would carry on the Lord’s work.

Because of our proneness to look at
the bucket and forget the fountain,
God has frequently to change His
means of supply to keep
our eyes fixed on the source

Watchman Nee

Watchman Nee
In 1920, Nee Shu-Tsu would hear Dora Yu preach.  Later known as Watchman Nee, he “planted at least four hundred Christian churches over a thirty-year period of active ministry.”  He died in 1972 in a Communist prison after spending 20 years there.  Watchman Nee wrote that “Because of our proneness to look at the bucket and forget the fountain, God has frequently to change His means of supply to keep our eyes fixed on the source.”

Whether it is a European missionary, a child preacher in New York City, a Chinese man temporarily studying in New York City, or a Chinese woman walking miles through the countryside:

How beautiful upon the mountains
            are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
            who publishes salvation,
            who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” – Isaiah 52:7

As Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  This rock is the gospel of the kingdom of God, and not even a brutal regime like that of Chairman Mao could prevail against it.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Noll, Mark A.; Nystrom, Carolyn.  Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (2011).  This post is drawn from chapters 12 and 14.

A Detour into the Total Perspective Vortex

In the previous post in this series on our Master’s voice, I wrote that: “We can’t see the reasons God wants us to trust Him because there is far more at work than we could ever imagine.”  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes great illustrations come from strange fictional places, like Jim Carrey movies and Douglas Adams books for example.

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,[1] the sequel to the sci-fi comedy classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams imagines a technology that harnesses full awareness of the universe as a profoundly cruel torture device.  When Trin Tragula invented the “Total Perspective Vortex” to annoy his wife who kept accusing him of blowing things out of proportion, he found that when he tested it on her, “the shock completely annihilated her brain.”  A victim is placed in the TPV and presented with a realistic model of the entire universe, with a tiny dot on top of a tiny dot that says, “you are here.”  He concluded that “a sense of proportion” in such a massive universe would only make someone feel completely insignificant, hopeless, and insane beyond all hope of recovery.  It’s a sci-fi comedy, but still, be careful what you wish for.

Another example from a different angle is the Jim Carrey movie, Bruce Almighty.  This hilarious (but irreverent) comedy is based on Carrey’s character Bruce Nolan raging against God about his frustrating life.  God, played by Morgan Freeman, appears and challenges Bruce to do any better, giving him “the job” for a temporary period to teach him a lesson.  The 3-ish-minute video embedded here is my favorite part of the movie, where Bruce tries to figure out how to deal with his new awareness of all the prayers of the world.

If God thought it was possible, or a good idea, for us to know it all, we would.  After all, even Nipper the dog from the “His Master’s Voice” painting would be distracted and unable to get anything done if he saw this picture, even though it contains only good news:

Our Master speaks to us as our creator, knowing both our limitations, but also what we are capable of as His marvelous creatures if we trust Him!

This post is fourth in a series that started with this post on His Master’s Voice. More to come…


[1] Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  (1980).  P. 79

Social Media Advice from Tim Keller

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

Not everyone has the same relationship with social media, and not everyone loves or hates it the same amount and for the same reasons.  For some, it may be fine just the way it is for how they use it.  Below I’ve linked Tim Keller’s review of the book Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing by Chris Bail, which has some helpful observations on why social media is so polarizing for many, and some thoughts on how to make it a better place for discussion.  Bail’s book is based on social science, not religion, but Keller connects it to Christian principles in interesting ways.

One of my favorite lines in the review is that “social media is not primarily a place of public discussion of ideas. The ideas are ways to define oneself and signal belonging to a group, as well as to assign identities to others by associating them with groups you oppose.”  Near the end are listed “several principles that [Bail] believes move toward persuasion in social media rather than polarization.”  It begins with listening and seeking to understand.

Full article linked below.
(Estimated reading time 10 minutes)

What Was the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ Really About? – History Bit for July 21

Some events in history bring a faint glimmer of memory to many people, but what they remember may not be the most relevant point. One such event was the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” decided on July 21 in 1925. What actually was this trial? Wikipedia’s summary[1] is that “a high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. The trial was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, where it was held.” The trial descended into theatrics and was covered by national news organizations. Time magazine called the trial a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war.” Each side had a famous lawyer seeking publicity: the Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times, was the prosecuting attorney, and the agnostic Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.

The immediate result of the trial was that Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a small fine, but years later, that’s not what people remember.  For some, the lesson of the Scopes trial is simple: “science good; religious fundamentalism bad.”  Another group of people might think the lesson was: “religious fundamentalism good; science bad.”  But did the case conclude either of these things?  It didn’t, so what’s the real issue?

The Culture Behind the Scopes Trial
In the background issues were simmering which still linger today – whether religion should have a voice in how science is used and taught.  Tim Keller notes that “Few people remember…that the textbook Scopes used, Civic Biology by George Hunter, taught not only evolution but also argued that science dictated we should sterilize or even kill those classes of people who weakened the human gene pool by spreading ‘disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country.’ This was typical of scientific textbooks of the time.”[2]  Wikipedia notes that “Scopes was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he incriminated himself deliberately so the case could have a defendant.”  So, the trial did not hinge on Scopes’ teaching, this textbook, or even eugenics, but the subject of eugenics sheds some light on how over-simplified the take-away of “science good; religious fundamentalism bad” really is.

Geneticist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, popularized the term “eugenics” from the Greek, meaning “good birth,” to describe ways humans could use evolutionary science to improve their condition.  He usually left unspoken that he meant not specific humans, but some abstract sense of humans in aggregate, and also that he meant to improve the condition of those humans in charge, or those humans with a voice among the humans in charge.   These beliefs were not rare, but quite mainstream.  Joseph Loconte, writing of the culture J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis lived in[3], notes: “In Britain, the Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907 to take up the cause.  By 1913, the American Genetic Association was established in the United States to promote the doctrines of racial purity.”  The United States was actually the first country where compulsory sterilization was legalized, and some practices implemented by Nazi Germany were lifted right out of laws used by U.S. States.  U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Three generations of imbeciles is enough” in defense of Virginia’s sterilization law.

The church was not entirely immune from the eugenics movement either.  According to Loconte, “Ministers in the Church of England held a Church Congress in 1910 in Cambridge, inviting several members of the Royal Commission on the Feeble-Minded to participate.”  Also, “By the 1920s, hundreds of American churches participated in a national eugenics sermon contest.  As the Rev. Kenneth McArthur, a winner from Sterling, Massachusetts, put it in his sermon: ‘If we take seriously the Christian purpose of realizing on earth the ideal divine society, we shall welcome every help which science affords.’”

This background to the Scopes Trial, often simplified to a “science” vs “fundamentalism” debate, makes us ask: which science and which fundamentalism?  Was eugenics, for a moment, part of “religious fundamentalism” for some of the church?  And is perfecting society on earth truly a fundamental Christian belief?  With a rule of thumb of “science good; religious fundamentalism bad,” or the opposite, what do you do if a scientific idea becomes also central to religious belief?

Also, if you take away science and religion from the equation altogether, which is better: “all humans have dignity and are worthy of care and love” or “some people deserve to be neutered like an ordinary animal”?  If science is the only source of our “fundamentalism,” where do we turn when it insists on destruction for the less favored?  Tim Keller argues that “Secular, scientific reason is a great good, but if taken as the sole basis for human life, it will be discovered that there are too many things we need that it is missing.”  What is missing is a meaningful reason to love your neighbor, regardless of their scientific knowledge, religious belief, disability, economic impact, level of intelligence, or any other characteristic.

It’s Not (Entirely) a Fantasy
Loconte says that although Tolkien and Lewis wrote of fantasy worlds populated not only by men, but also by elves, dwarves, orcs, and many other races, the topics of eugenics and other Progressive Era ideas served as background.  In Tolkien’s epic The Lord of The Rings, the solution to conflict between the races was not for one race to rule the others, or (even worse) to eliminate them.  Instead, the answer is to utterly destroy the Ring of Power, representing the desire of any tribe to use power to rule others “for their own good,” as some say.  While Tolkien insists his story is not a direct allegory, he may have been thinking of the centuries of tribal conflict between the English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh.  Or the conflict between any group of conquerors and the conquered.  By using fictional races, Tolkien was arguing that this lesson applies to everyone, in all places and at all times.

Therefore, when scientific fundamentalism says it’s OK not to love some people, Christians need to respond without exception that every person is a creation of God with innate dignity and should be loved as Christ loved us.  However, as shown on the cross, power is not the answer.  As Jesus told his disciples in Mark 10:42-45 – “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

God does not expect us to understand every issue of history, or even in our daily news feed, which is increasingly a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war,” but when we all meet our Lord in heaven, He will say “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” – Matthew 25:40


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial
[2] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  This post draws from pages 12-13.
[3] Loconte, Joseph.  A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918 (2015).  This post draws on pages 15-19.