When H.S. Bender came out with The Anabaptist Vision in the 1940s, he offered a Mennonite theology that was different from the evangelical fundamentalism widely accepted in the church at the time.
The author of Jesus of the East does something similar, offering a sharp critique of western Christianity and presenting a different perspective of Jesus. Phuc Luu says that the predominant Christianity of North America has become a nationalistic religion that oppresses the poor and teaches that God is an angry avenger. He argues that the traditional eastern church and the Minjung theology of Korea do a better job of explaining the message of Jesus.
Although Luu has no obvious Anabaptist connection, his concerns about western Christianity have long been under discussion in Mennonite circles. For example, he argues that, since the time of Constantine, the western church has had a cozy relationship with governments, which reshaped Christian theology into a tool for those in power. He is critical of churches, particularly in the United States, for preaching an individualized and spiritualized faith that ignores Jesus’ message of peace and justice. He also questions the concept of original sin and the penal substitutionary view of Atonement.
While it may seem a bit presumptuous for Luu to critique beliefs that Christians have held for a thousand years, his questions are honest and his outlook rings true in our postmodern culture. Luu was born in South Vietnam but came to the United States when he was four, when his family escaped in the night just before the fall of Saigon. As a Vietnamese-American, he says he is caught between two cultures, not really fitting into either one. This situation of being between two countries gives him a distinct perspective from which to compare eastern and western theologies.
Luu critiques western Christianity for teaching that salvation is private and spiritual, so that Christians can avoid being concerned about the world’s economic inequality and racism. He says that, for the past 400 years, the West has separated mind and body to the degree that ethics and social concerns are considered only physical and not relevant to theology. In this way, religious doctrine has supported a culture of injustice.
The doctrine of original sin is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus, says Luu. Augustine, who came up with the idea, misinterpreted Romans 5:12 because he was using a Latin translation rather than the original Greek. In the East, sin is understood differently, as there is no sense of total depravity. The responsibility of Christians is not to deal with guilt but to restore the image of God in themselves.
Luu also doesn’t accept the penal substitutionary view of Atonement. He writes, “There is no systematic theology within Scripture that explicitly shows how God redeemed humanity,” and he argues that God could not have used violence to redeem humanity from their sins. The story of the Prodigal Son shows what Jesus believes about those who need forgiveness, and it does not involve appeasing the wrath of God.
Among all these critiques, Luu also describes what he believes Jesus taught, occasionally referring to some ideas from the Minjung theology of Korea and early Christian writings from the Middle East.
As a Mennonite, I was fascinated to find one subheading entitled “The politics of Jesus,” and that Luu emphasizes peace. I found it very interesting to compare this book to Anabaptist theology and I appreciated Luu’s thoughtful critique of American civil religion.
When I first looked at the cover, I was puzzled, until I realized the words are vertical rather than horizontal. Since many Asian languages are traditionally written in columns, Luu seems to be saying that an eastern perspective can give us new insight.
Although Luu has degrees in theology and philosophy, this book is refreshingly easy to read. I would recommend it for anyone interested in thinking about how God relates to us.