It’s only short, but in essence it plays out a part of what I was getting at in my last (and heavily edited) post, Between Culture and Reality: A Thought Along Christian Lines. It encapsulates what that I said about Christ being present across millennia throughout the East and the West and being visibly authenticated through that same strange power of the powerless. These Chinese Christians are receiving their own Bible for the very first time. I’ve been to China before, and Bibles were not in short supply in the city where I was staying. However, it was not always this way, and religious tolerance varies a lot from province to province. China may have its own state church, but I have learned that the freedom to teach Christian doctrines is still restricted, to the extent of prohibiting teaching the Resurrection in some areas, and enforcing special classes where state values are re-consolidated. Illegal house churches have greater freedom to teach their own doctrines, and are tolerated in larger cities if they are perceived to pose no threat to the authority of the state. However, this tolerance remains a recent development. As testified by one Chinese pastor, Brother Yun from Henan Province, in his book The Heavenly Man, Christians from house churches were imprisoned and brutally tortured at the hands of the state in the 1980s, and the doctrines that state churches were allowed to teach were so restricted in those days that the state churches acted as little more than a vehicle to maintain status quo. Human rights have generally improved since and torture is no longer used, but unauthorized house churches remain liable to closure, and as there remains a lack of knowledge about Christianity in rural areas, it is in these places where Christians still suffer persecution. Today, China ranks as 37th most difficult place in the world to live as a Christian on Open Doors’ World Watch List. There must be so many thousands like the people in this video, whatever province they belonged to, and whatever year the video was made. They run, they cry, they kiss the Word, they praise God. How does this challenge us…?
It brings to mind the festival and celebration when Ezra read the Book of the Law and the Levites interpreted it for the people. It’s in the book of Nehemiah, which has been dated somewhere between 430-400 BC . That Book of the Law is now part of our Bible, and we can now read it at any time with any commentary that can be bought or downloaded at a price or for free off the internet, all day and every day if we have the time – and that, with little to no ceremony or celebration at all. Watch the video, then read the Nehemiah passage below. Look at the resemblance. Is it any wonder that God seems to work more visibly and obviously over there than over here?
Nehemiah 8:5-12, NIV
Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.
What I find sickening about this is that although what was such a momentous occasion for them as a people is as easy as pie for us to do individually in the quiet of our rooms, and although we are now more literate and better educated than ever before and have the benefits of millennia of scholars behind us, knowledge of the Bible and Christian doctrines (in Britain at least) is at an unbelievable low. A lot of people will have a lot to answer for when they reach the Judgement Seat. In this world where there are so many bright, sparkly and enticing things demanding our attention, can the problem really just be that we prefer to devote our finite time to these things rather than to our God? Does it simply boil down, for us, to a matter of misplaced desire? Cue John Piper. Cue Desiring God. I’m an advocate of viewing all media outlets with a critical eye – especially doctrine-propounding ones – but these people sure seem to have hit the nail on the head about what’s wrong with our Christian communities in the West today.
What will we do when like Hilkiah in 2 Kings 22, we one day find the Book of the Law lying in a pile of rubble inside the ruins of our once-glorious Temple of the Holy Spirit? Will our leaders tear their robes like King Josiah and declare in abject horror, “Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book”? Apparently obesity is the greatest threat in the Western world. I wouldn’t say it’s merely a biological obesity, either. We’re fattening our souls up on freedoms, affluence, entertainment, and spiritual junk culture from our press and media. What quality will our meat be like when we offer ourselves as living sacrifices? At an Open Doors prayer meeting at my church once, I was told something that shocked me. The persecuted church viewed our prayers as supremely valuable. However, they do not envy us. Apparently many of them have heard of our condition, and they fear for us, and view us as the ones in need of prayer. A former rector of mine once said that when he started to pray for an end to persecution with a group of international pastors, he was even strongly rebuked! No, there are those amongst the persecuted who are afraid that the end of their persecutions might spell a sad and sorry spiritual reality like ours!
I sometimes wonder what is there to do but pray for these people, help them, and request their prayers. We’re weak, flabby members of the worldwide body of Christ, and I predict that, lest we be cut off for our unfruitfulness, our merciful God might either grant us the self-discipline to diet out the media junk and entertainment, or else starve us off our affluence and freedoms as the cultural tides turn. As increasingly more Christians complain of being denied religious freedoms by the British government and the EU and church attendance figures plummet, I think this is what’s starting to happen, and I think this constitutes a branch-pruning that we should accept with hope and cover in prayer for a more fruitful spiritual future, rather than fight against.
. According to https://bible.org/article/introduction-books-ezra-nehemiah [last accessed 11th February 2014].