Hannah Nation serves as the Communications and Content Director for China Partnership. Prior to joining CP, Hannah worked for close to a decade in campus ministry with Chinese students. She is a graduate of Covenant College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Last year I spent time interviewing a group of Chinese graduate students I regularly met with for Bible study. With the permission of those interviewed, I published a series called “Stories from Chinese Millennials” – this is a late addition to that series. None of the students interview were professed Christians, though they are all in various stages of spiritual seeking, and all have now returned to China.
Though I have worked with China for a decade, I still find myself learning about the world from which my friends come. Sometimes in my interviews with these students, their answers were so familiar – the words they spoke echoed the scores of similar answers I’ve heard over the years. But at other times, their answers were truly surprising, reminding me that what I as an American can learn and study about China will still never fully prepare me for the complexity of each individual’s life. Everyone’s story is unique, even given the cultural similarities and traits I recognize.
For this interview, I spent time with a young woman I’ll call Maggie. Maggie took life very seriously and “grew up” in many ways during her year studying in the United States. Even the way she dressed and presented herself altered – arriving in fairly typical undergrad styles and leaving in the dress coats and heels of a recent business school graduate. Maggie was always pleasant to be with and often acted as the wise older sister to the group of roommates she spent time with. She also had many deep sorrows in her life that she closely guarded. She only started to open up about them to me in the last few months of her time abroad.
Maggie’s description of her understanding of God and her attraction to Christianity is one of the clearest articulations of a Chinese seeker’s ideas I’ve encountered. The life experiences she recounts in last week’s blog post are a vital background to what she discusses here. I hope her interview can help you better understand why so many Chinese are attracted to the idea of religion, and why so many still struggle to accept the Christian gospel. Ministry with China’s people remains a complex and challenging field, and it is vitally important that the gospel which we preach makes clear that grace alone – not any good work we do – is what saves us.
How did you become interested in studying Christianity?
Would You Pray With Us Today?
A very straightforward reason is because I know you and [your husband]. You are both very nice people and I enjoy talking and hanging out with you. I like to know what you are thinking and the way you see this world.
I wanted to get a better understanding of the cultural differences. China is a country which lacks religion. I wanted better knowledge about you and about the U.S. That opened the door for knowing about Christians.
Later on, it was kind of selfish. I had a slight wish that maybe God can give miracles to people’s lives. If I do good things will the good influence be put back on my mom? If I help others, maybe God, in some corner where I cannot see, maybe he will say, “Oh, this girl does good things.” So then he would bless me. It is kind of selfish! Maybe it’s ridiculous, but that is the true starting point of my interest in Christianity.
But I have to say, if you want to promote [Christianity] in China, it may be difficult. As [someone I know] said, if Chinese people believe in a religion, it’s very probable it is because this religion can benefit them, make them better off, bring them fortune, or a child, or love. They believe it because you gave them something to prove you are powerful. If that weren’t so, Chinese people wouldn’t buy it. They wouldn’t believe. This is very realistic. It’s money-oriented. Their motivation is not as pure as you guys.
This situation can be partly explained by history. In Western countries, such as in Europe or North America, citizens believe in their religion because of a solid foundation and tradition. Your parents believed in it, so it is easier to understand. People tend to be influenced by their parents and grandparents and believe what they do. In China, we don’t have this foundation and basis for belief. It would be hard to start. But everything has a start! The development of Christianity in China is growing, but there is still a very long way to go.
So the first reason [Christianity would be hard to spread in China] is from the perspective of citizens. Another reason is from the perspective of society and government. Religion—no offense, this is my personal opinion—is a tool that politicians and government manage or use to run society. If religion brings benefit to them, makes their governing easier, makes society stable, makes people less aggressive, then the government will agree with it.
Have you seen House of Cards? I don’t think Frank [the main character, a politician] believes in Jesus. Not at all. In a politician’s eyes the most valuable thing is power. Everything serves power. So if religion is a tool which can help them govern, they will permit or promote it. But if not, maybe they would not terminate it, but they would not support it. It would be hard if the government did not promote Christianity.
What do you find difficult to accept about the Christian religion or to accept about Christianity?
From the very start of our education we were taught to believe in materialism, not idealism. My textbooks told me: believe what you see. If you cannot see it, you’d better not believe it.
But religion is more idealistic. When we first meet this, it conflicts with what we previously believed. The first reaction may be challenging or confused. We have thousands of questions, especially for those who are older than us. Our parents are fifty years old. In their life experience, they have never heard or seen God; they’ve already been shaped. It’s hard for them to change their opinions.
For me, sometimes I feel it is unfair. If God is really so smart and so fair, why do bad things happen? Why do bad people do so well? Most of the time, we believe that if you do good, you receive good. But the reality is that a lot of bad guys are doing very well. It’s not fair or right.
And the third difficulty is I’ve been watching the Oscar winner for best movie, Spotlight. It gave me a negative impression of religion. Why do bad things happen to people who are so young, so nice? The bad guys initially seem like good people—they get the power, they get a command from God—but they do really bad things. It has a detrimental effect on the integrity or reputation of Christians.
What do you find attractive about Christianity?
I talked about this with [a friend]. He said when he was very young, he didn’t really believe in Christianity, but as he grows older, he finds when things happen in life, they comply with what God says in the Bible. For example, if you do good things, you receive good results.
This really happens. It happened a lot of times in my life, too. When I face a choice to be good or bad, I choose to be good. Maybe in the short term I will not have a benefit, or maybe I will even receive some losses in the short term. But in the long term, I will be better off. This complies with what my father told me: people should consider others. You should be generous and kind. Maybe in the short term you will lose some money, you will not get the maximum profit. But in the long term, you will win people’s respect with your reputation, and then you will be better off.
These things comply with Christian principles. In these moments, I feel Christianity makes sense. It really does have an influence. Maybe it’s true, and God is watching what you are doing. Acting based on integrity will be worth it. If you do bad things, and no one on earth sees it, but God sees it, in the end you will pay a price. You must watch your actions and be careful what you do, even if no one is there.
Another thing [I find attractive about Christianity] is from Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee. It describes a boy who survived a very incredible journey. I think this is the power of God. If you are in a desperate situation, but still have faith, I think God will save you. There are a lot of things in our lives that can’t be explained by science. Those are miracles designed by God.
So movies have also had a positive effect on my opinion of Christianity. They have shown me both sides and helped me to understand things from a more complete perspective.
If you believed in Jesus, what do you think would change about your life?
I think I would be better.
If I believed in Christianity, I would be totally a disciple of God. I would obey what God tells me to do, and from this perspective I think I would have better relationships with others. In the long term, it would give me some surprises.
When I am in a desperate situation, it may give me strength or power to overcome those difficulties. I think the hard part is, if things did not go the way I expected, it would undermine my belief. I think this reaction is very natural. If something goes the way you think, it strengthens your belief in that thing. But if things develop in the opposite direction, your faith may shake. You may not be as faithful as before.
If I become a Christian, I would do a lot of charity.
In America, during the process of dealing with Christian people like you and others I met in church, I found dealing with you guys makes me feel very comfortable, very relaxed. I would treat others the way you have taught me how to treat people around me. I would be more open-minded, more generous, more peaceful.
I don’t know. Maybe if I could have stayed here for a longer time I would have a better understanding of Christians.