Theology of culture in a Japanese context

A Believers' Church Perspective

Atsuyoshi Fujiwara, professor of theology at Seigakuin University and founding pastor of Covenant of Grace Church in Tokyo, looks at the relationship of Christ and the church to culture in this excellent work, part of the Princeton Theological Monograph Series. The book originates as Fujiwara’s PhD dissertation at University of Durham, England. This makes the first two chapters somewhat difficult to work through as he lays his theoretical framework, examining both Niebuhr’s transformation approach and Yoder and Hauerwas’ Anabaptist or believers’ church approach.

But every Japan Harvest reader should study the final three chapters where Fujiwara gives an excellent overview of Christianity in Japan. Chapter 3 looks at 16th and 17th century Catholicism and has some moving accounts of what the early missionaries and believers suffered. From the 1612 edict until the lifting of the ban in 1873, “Christians in Japan lived under constant threat of martyrdom” p. 169. Japanese Christians learned that suffering was part of being a Christian. Fujiwara writes passionately and prophetically: “If we seek to avoid suffering, we move toward painless, elegant, and abstract cultural Christianity without concrete repentance and without concrete affirmation of the Lordship of Christ in our lives” (p. 185). The author shows how Christian charities attracted many people to Christianity and served as entrance points toward Japanese inquirers becoming Christians (p. 187). In contrast to these early Christians, “Protestant Christians seemed to come to the church when Christianity fit with the times and to serve their purposes; they left the church without a sense of guilt when being a Christian was no longer convenient for them” p. 206. He wonders how many Japanese Christians today have as clear a Christian identity as the early Kirishitans (16th and 17th century Catholic Christians).

In chapter 4 Fujiwara looks at the period from 1859 to 1945 when the Protestants became most dominant. He asks why Christianity in this period failed to penetrate the soul of the Japanese Christian and argues, “Japan has failed to produce . . . a believers’ church, and suggest[s] that because of this the church has compromised with Japanese culture and consequently has had little impact on it” (p. 209). Church growth seemed largely dependent on Japanese acceptance of Western culture. “Unlike Kirishitan Christianity which accepted suffering for Christ as part of Christian identity and was rooted in community of faith, in the 1930s and 1940s, survival became the churches’ supreme goal. Christianity in this period had acquired a more theologically abstract mindset and a more accommodating attitude to Japanese culture, in addition to be less demanding about the unchanging truth” (p. 242).

The final chapter looks at Christianity in Japan after the war (1945 to 1985) and discusses the perspectives of major Japanese theologians on the church’s relationship to the world. He gives special attention to Kazoh Kitamori, and to two of his own senior colleagues at Seigakuin: Yasuo Furuya, and Hideo Ohki. In this chapter Fujiwara argues that although Japanese Christians have overcome the compromise of the pre-war period, they have “still sought to establish for the church a major status at the center of society. Such Christianity, what I have called ‘magisterial Christianity,’ confuses church and society and fails to offer alternative models to society” (p. 274). He says this elitist Christianity has often failed to practice evangelism and mentions Furuya’s criticism of “Japanese Christians’ tendency to value ‘quality over quantity.’ ‘Quality’ means elite Christians with academic theology and high social status” (p. 308). To the contrary, Fujiwara is looking for a church that will critique Japan’s religious culture.

While not easy reading, the book will richly repay all who read it. The 21-page bibliography shows Fujiwara’s wide and deep reading in both English and Japanese sources.

Japan Harvest readers should also note Seigakuin’s monograph series, A Theology of Japan, which attempts to theologically critique problems that Japan faces. Fujiwara is on the editorial board and a contributor to the most recent monograph, Post-disaster Theology from Japan (2013, vol. 6).