The Story of the Dictionary of Asian Christianity

By Sunquist, Scott W. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, April 2002 | Go to article overview

The Story of the Dictionary of Asian Christianity


Sunquist, Scott W., International Bulletin of Mission Research


Reference works are multiplying like rabbits on the outback. A quick check in your local theological library will show that if you haven't looked through the reference section in the past year or two, you are out of date. There are dictionaries and encyclopedias on slavery (I know of three), religion in America, regions of the world (in various languages), religions and belief systems, and countless more. As a result, one can do a quick study on a region, say Nigeria or the Gold Coast, from the perspective of slavery, religion, politics, or customs and folklore. Of the making of reference works, there is no end.

I suppose it was the French Encyclopedists who got us in this pattern of thinking that we really can know everything, or at least something about everything. Exactly a quarter of a millennium ago the first volume of Diderot's twenty-eight-volume work was published, to an international outcry of disdain. The Encyclopedists claimed that if civilization were to be destroyed, it could be rebuilt from the Encyclopedie. The multivolume work was to establish an Enlightenment view of the cosmos and a "scientific" way of thinking about reality. It was a product of its time, a perspective that would dominate the Western approach to politics, science, social science, and religion for two centuries. We learn something about the period by reading this reference work. In fact we learn a great deal about the period and about Western culture by reading the original Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts, et des metiers, as it was to be called.

A Dictionary of Asian Christianity (DAC) is a small work by comparison, with none of the grandiose claims of the work of the eighteenth-century philosophes. And yet there is a historical context that helps to explain the method, content, and concern of this reference work. First, the DAC comes out of a period of contextualization of theology and praxis in global Christianity. With independence movements and nation-building after World War II came rapid growth in national church movements and their accompanying theologies. Also, national church leaders began to be trained more rapidly and at a higher level than ever before, many of them after the 1960s taking interest in their own national church histories. As a result, by the late 1980s there were national church historians from many countries in Asia, which had never been the case before. In some areas there were even historians focusing on their own ethnic groups within the larger (often Western-determined) political nation-states. Thus, Indonesia has hist orians who know the Batak church history and others who know Timorese church history. The DAC is built upon the work of such Asian church historians. Their contributions have given a new dignity to local Christian histories that formerly were the "mission histories" of outsiders.

The rapid growth of Christianity in Asia on the far side of Western and Japanese imperialism is also part of the context of the DAC. It is quite amazing that with only limited support of Western finances, teachers, and organization, Christianity has grown more rapidly in Asia than ever before. (1) With the increase in Christian population in Asia has come the rapid growth of Bible colleges, seminaries, and religious orders. Historical studies that will be used to prepare these leaders require information about the "new" dynamics of Christianity in Asia. Before Japanese imperialism in Asia was overthrown, there would have been very little need for such a reference book; Christianity was still dominated by outsiders.

Interreligious dialogue and the sensitive relationship between the religions in Asia has been another important element in explaining both the content and the concern of the DAC. With the revival of some of the traditional religions in Asia (Buddhism in Taiwan and Singapore; Islam in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia) has come a reshaping of Christian existence in Asia. …

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