David Marshall. The True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. Seattle, WA: Kuai Mu Press, 2002. 216 pp.
This book has far too many problems that can’t be ignored. I will begin looking at the problems first and then what’s good with the book; but the weakness far outweighs its strength and I hesitate suggesting this work to anyone else.
The first problem is rather minor but everything else that follows concerns with the content of the book. This book has bad editing. The book has three sections but the numbering of the section is off; for instance, part one is labeled as part two, and part two is labeled as part three, etc. In the first chapter the endnotes are missing. I think the editors were asleep on the wheel and honestly I think if they did a better job scrutinizing the content of the book, I think the book wouldn’t have been published in the first place because I think it does not even fulfill the expectation of an undergraduate essay.
The author David Marhsall did quote various sources but there were many times I wished he explained better what it was or who it was that he was quoting—and why was it significant. It is not helpful for the general reader when the sources of these quotes are not explained.
The book’s thesis is that “many important symbols and ideas within Chinese culture points to Jesus” (7). Some of his evidences of how Chinese culture points towards Jesus and Christianity does not seem to logically follow. For instance, on page five Marshall talked about how Beijing’s Temple of Heaven had twelve red outer pillars and that the number twelve and the color red pointed to the apostles. I don’t know how the color red necessitate that it is the apostles’ blood in view. We must also not forget that the Apostle John was not martyred so it is hard to see 12 red pillars. Later in the book Marshall would argue that the Forbidden Palace’s three layer roof is proof of the Trinity but this seems somewhat of a stretch.
Another of his evidence that Chinese culture points towards Christianity is Confucius. For instance on page 9-10 Marshall claims about Confucius that he “did more than anyone in China to point people to this way.” I would say that is a bold claim. I have reservation with Marshall’s claim about Confucius when Marshall in the book also admitted that Confucius “did not know how to approach heaven” on page 41, that “one thing Confucius lacked: closeness to Heaven” on page 56 and also how “he did not know how to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, or fully understand why it needed to be bridged” on page 57. How can one point to the way when he is ignorant of all the essentials of the Way? Marshall also believed that Confucius’ talk about Sheng Ren (Holy Man) anticipates the Messiah and one of his defense of this is that “Confucius never said the Sheng Ren would be Chinese” (42). But Marshall here is making a fallacious argument from silence. There are so much question begging assertions that the book makes about Confucius and Jesus that it is hard to keep track of them; for instance on page 68 the author claims that both Jesus and Confucius and Jesus “are going the same direction” except Jesus makes it “a dangerous adventure” (68).
Marshall also tried to argue that in the past Chinese thinkers did know the God of Christianity. I think he failed to interact with the strongest arguments of those who disagreed and instead Marshall engaged in a defense the Chinese concept of God is personal. While I do believe that Chinese does have some conception of a personal God that hardly makes it the Christian God. He also failed to account for the silence of Chinese intellectual figureheads with the concept of the Trinity, something that is distinctively Christian. Marshall’s discussion about God’s transcendence and imminence is misplaced in the debate. Added to his confusion is Marshall’s statement that “there are passages in the Bible where the boundary between God and man appear a bit fudged, too, such as Paul’s famous ‘In Him we live and move and have our being’” (24). When one look up Acts 17, we do see the passages affirm God’s transcendence and immanence but it does not present it as being muddled. God is indeed transcendent but also His presence is everywhere though that does not mean God is His creature or creation.
It does not help Marshall’s cause when he is theologically weak that affects his discernment and presentation. For instance, he talks about Nestorians as “the first Christians in China” (25) without acknowledging their heretical status. There is the danger of syncretism in Marshall’s theology. He claims on page 68 that “Jesus and Lao Zi were ‘spiritual brothers.’” I wished the book was more pronounce and clear concerning sin, Jesus’ death and salvation. Even when he does talk about those subject towards the end of the book, he doesn’t connect the relationship of sin to justification and Jesus’ work on the cross which I see as essential for one’s Gospel presentation.
His methodology is problematic because everything points to Jesus Christ, even Mao’s rebellion is something Jesus took to make part of His Way (64-65). Marshall thinks Jesus was speaking about Mao’s regime when He said brothers will be against brothers, etc (168). It is a bit of a stretch. It must also be said that the same method the author use can also be used to demonstrate how Chinese culture points to say Marxism, Islam, etc. It is a flawed and speculative method. Plus, I don’t think Mao is a good “bridge” to Chinese culture for Christianity, given how he is a tyrant and also someone who is not necessarily held in high regards among everyone in the Chinese community.
I thought it was ironic that the author could point out “Chinese Buddhism” is “very Chinese, but not very Buddhist” (81). At times I felt Marshall’s work ended up being more Chinese than Christian.
I think any reference to historical and political realities that the book make must be double checked. For instance, on page 82-83 the book claims “A symbol of both Mao’s success and his failure is that under socialism, the poor learned to waste this precious grain,” with the grain referring to rice. Supposedly, “the communists alleviated China’s chronic food shortage” (83). I had a hard time with this personally since it goes against what history tells us of the man made famine that Mao’s economic policies produced. In fact, Mao’s policies followed that of Stalin and Mao didn’t change it even with the Russians warning him that it wasn’t going to work since they have done it already themselves. Given the historical inaccuracy of the statement we must ask what is the basis for Marshall to assert such a horrendous claim and he tells us following the above quote when he go on to say “When I walked by student dorms in China in the mid 1980s, I learned to keep an eye out for uneaten rice thrown through a window” (83). Assuming this to be true, we must remember that the author’s experience in the mid-1980s was the reign of Deng Xiao Ping and not Chairman Mao. Chairman Mao has been dead for a decade so the basis for his evidence of Mao’s economic success does not support his conclusion.
There was too many times throughout the book that the author wrote flowery descriptions that didn’t have to do with anything. There’s a travelogue small talk feel to the book that was not appropriate for a book that was going to rigorously argue how Jesus fulfills Chinese culture. There were pictures in the book that one has to wonder what did it have to do with anything with the chapter and pictures that made one ask the question: who is this guy? What is going on?
As I said before the bad outweighs the good in the book. What I did appreciate from the book is his chapter on how Buddhism cannot fulfill the expectation and longing of Chinese culture. Of course, one might ask why must Chinese Culture be the standard to judge one’s religion in the first place and if consistent it is also detrimental to the Christian cause since not everything in Chinese culture is right and compatible with Christianity. It seems as if this didn’t occur to the author giving his silence on the issue.
I also enjoyed it whenever the author discussed Chinese character and how it points to some profound truth or confirm Biblical truths and this is probably the strongest evidence he presents in the book. Sadly when it comes to the characters pointing to Genesis he shares in the appendix that he is skeptical of it; but if he is skeptical of the strongest evidence in his book, that doesn’t speak a whole lot for the rest of his superficial look at how Chinese culture points towards Christ.