This history of the Anabaptist tradition in Asia is perhaps the best example of the extent and diversity of the Mennonite church around the world. Churches Engage Asian Traditions is the fourth in a series of five volumes arising from the Global Mennonite History Project launched 15 years ago.
The purpose of the series is to “tell the story of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches and to promote mutual understanding, and stimulate the renewal and extension of Anabaptist Christianity worldwide.” The final volume (on North America) is expected to be released shortly.
The Asian volume was released just in time for the biennial Shenk Mission Lectureship in Elkhart, Ind., October 2011, which became an occasion to celebrate and learn from the entire project. Like the Africa volume, Churches Engage Asian Traditions deals exclusively with Mennonite churches that are the product of mission/service rather than a combination of migration and mission/service.
In addition to the various mission agencies, the work of Mennonite Central Committee emerges significantly in most of the countries, often after the devastation of World War II. However, most of the mission agencies were also active in service areas such as health and education. The histories in the various countries provides an excellent resource for evaluating how service and mission should be interconnected.
The Asia volume was probably the most difficult to produce, given the number of countries and the diversity of cultures represented. With 13 authors contributing, a unified approach can hardly be expected.
Two introductory chapters by Dutch missiology professor Alle Hoekema provide an excellent background, first to Asia in general (history, culture, religion), and then to the introduction of Christianity on the continent. The longest chapters are devoted to Indonesia and India, with about 100 pages each. The only chapter by a Mennonite Brethren author is the one on India by MB Centenary Bible College president I.P. Asheervadam.
The book offers frank discussion of internal conflicts and challenges, as well as of difficulties between Western agencies and national churches. In particular, issues pertaining to unique cultural circumstances and indigenous religious practices raise thought-provoking questions for Western Christians. It’s clear that in many cases, missionaries were not concerned about establishing a particular theological Anabaptist identity. Instead, they carried the message of conservative North American evangelicalism without an emphasis on peace, service, and community.
Each chapter provides considerable detail on the church developments, individual leaders, growth of conferences, etc. Aside from academics and mission agency personnel, North Americans might be overwhelmed by the detail. The many photographs interspersed throughout the text, are unfortunately small and often of poor quality. Because the book is written in English, it will have limited use in the respective countries. The book’s strength, however, is that its authors are largely from Asia, therefore reflecting insights which may differ from those of North Americans.
Larger interpretive and theological issues are briefly raised in most chapters, but more thoroughly in the concluding chapter by Takanobu Tojo, a Japanese professor and member of the Brethren in Christ church. He is most forthright in his criticism of the fact that the Christian message was generally defined by the assumptions of imperialistic Christianity. He states, “It is our duty to reappraise, in the light of the Bible as the word of God, the nature of European Christianity which lost the true spirit of Christianity as it provided a religious foundation for modern sovereign nationalism and accommodated itself to the Enlightenment, modern imperialism and colonialism.” For Anabaptists this presents a unique opportunity and challenge.
I congratulate the authors and editors on producing such a comprehensive volume on Mennonite presence in Asia. The material builds an excellent base for further analysis, and comparative studies, and discerning directions for the future.