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Jesus in Asia review: A question of faith 

While posted in Mysore in the 1980s, I would occasionally meet my friend, the late Father Amalorpavadass, a Catholic priest in Anjali Ashram, a retreat he founded for interfaith dialogue. It was a great place to freely discuss contentious issues like acculturation and argue whether one had to be a Christian to believe in Jesus.

To Father Amalorpavadass, Christianity had to necessarily adapt to strong local cultures to make sense to its followers. He was also emphatic that Jesus and his teachings transcended faiths.

Famously tolerant and forgiving, Jesus always appealed to Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, in India and Asia. It is perhaps the fact that these faiths were absorptive, that Christianity never became a dominant religion in the continent.

Jesus, however, is revered in Asia, with followers and philosophers developing their own understanding of the man and his message over centuries. We are introduced to some of them in Jesus in Asia by R.S. Sugirtharajah, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at Birmingham University.

The book regrettably lacks the depth of other Harvard publications like Robert Crew’s For Prophet and Tsar. It ignores the extraordinary proselytising efforts of Catholic priests like Matteo Ricci and Saint Francis Xavier in China and the rest of Asia and has almost nothing on how Jesus was understood in the continent’s most populous Christian country, the Philippines.

Sugirtharajah professes to move “the quest for the historical Jesus beyond the narrow confines of the Western world.” Here he fails. Except for an account of the ‘Jesus Sutras,’ prepared between the 5th and 11th centuries and discovered hundreds of years later in a cave by a Chinese monk in 1910, much of what is there on Jesus in Sugirtharajah’s book is reactive to western stimuli.

A poorly argued chapter on two ‘Jesus-deniers’, Chandra Verma, and Direnranath Chowduri, is followed by one on the Sri Lankan scholar and convert to Christianity, Francis Kingsbury, whose Jesus, Sugirtharajah considers dull, “distant and detached from any ideological cause.” Also, he misses out on the rest of India, especially Kerala, with the largest Christian population in the country.

The best chapters in Sugirtharajah’s book are on perceptions of Jesus in China, Korea and Japan. His account of the Taiping rebellion in China, led by Hong Xiuquan who considered himself to be Jesus’ younger brother, is insightful as is his chapter on the pro-poor Minjung movement in Korea and its principal pioneer, Professor Ahn Byung Mu.

Jesus in Asia; R.S. Sugirtharajah, Harvard University Press, Rs: 799.

(Source: The Hindu)

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