Chow Chun Fai –– “Last Supper“, Renaissance Trilogy I (2005)

This story tickled me:

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa, where they have encountered foreign cultures that leave many of them feeling alienated. For some of these disaffected Chinese workers, a source of comfort has come from religion, most notably the Evangelical Christianity that pervades much of sub-Saharan Africa. Evangelicalism prioritises conversion of non-believers, and the Chinese, heavily discouraged from practicing religion at home, are attractive potential converts.

Many local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services.  A number of Chinese, in turn, have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. And a small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries are specifically targeting Chinese nationals in Africa, preaching to them with a freedom they’d never be allowed in the People’s Republic.

Many of these Chinese workers are returning home, and they’re bringing their newfound religion with them.  Visitors to the coastal province of Fujian, for example, now hear South African accented English and see houses adorned with crosses.  African migrants are also moving to China in larger numbers, many of them practitioners of very evangelistic forms of Pentecostal Christianity who are willing to flout the rules placed on religious activity in China.

Christopher Rhodes “How Africa is converting China,” The Unherd

First things first, I cannot evaluate the accuracy of this story in pretty much any way, and The Unherd is a new media venture with maybe ideological leanings (?) that are giving me Quilette vibes. Nevertheless, I love hearing globalization stories that have nothing to do with the United States. One of the defining characteristics of US culture is its indifference to anything outside of it. Plus, both China (because of its ascendancy and trade powers) and Africa (because of its color and post-colonial politics) often operate as political opposite poles to the United States to the extent that Americans think about foreign policy at all.

It reminded me of this working definition of religion I’ve been toying with:

A religion is a system of attaching meaning to behavioral choices that creates a positive feedback loop whereby adherents gain a greater survival advantage as some combination of strict adherence to precepts, size of the community of adherents, or access to spiritual experience increases.

I have never had any formal education in religious studies, so maybe this is a 101 level insight, but it feels like it’s all my own and it speaks to some of the uneasiness I feel when some of the people around me go in on religious people. I think about the people in my own life for whom religion was a way to feel control and agency in their life, or for whom religion was the opening to being able to talk about and access an inner emotional life. Religious people can be shitty, but, like, maybe they would be even shittier without it?

I’m fascinated by dying churches. I play piano every now and then for a Norwegian Presbyterian Church here in a Portland Suburb, a dwindling congregation that once served an ethnic community that barely exists anymore. The churches and religions that are thriving right now are the ones who have figured out how to give a survival advantage to those who walk through their door. These Chinese, workers, for example, get to walk in the door and experience a feeling of community and common struggle in a context where that is hard to find.

It’s why I can’t imagine they will ever die. As long as living remains a challenge, there will be a need for some way to teach adaptation, and a secondary need to attach meaning to that adaptation. What used to be called New Age religion so thoroughly dominates American culture its practically indistinguishable from it. We might have way more atheists in this country than ever before, but there are also more folks practicing yoga, going on meditation retreats, consuming bone broth. Scientologists get it, you join, they get you auditions. Mormons understand it, if you’re a man they’ll set you up with a career and a family.

You want to start a new religion? Come up with your survival advantage. The rest of the patter will write itself.

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