Mangoes or Bananas?: The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology. By Hwa Yung. Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2014, 6372 locations, $8.69 Kindle edition.
It is undeniable that the Western Church has made great strides in bringing the Gospel to Asia within the past few hundred years. However, the Gospel is not the only thing we have brought to the Two-Thirds world. Along with advancements in technology and medicine, Western missionaries have also brought (some might say imposed) traditions and customs that are quite foreign to Asia. In doing so, Asian believers have historically struggled to understand how to live out their faith in Christ within their respective cultures. Hwa Yung, Bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia, deals with the growing “dissatisfaction with Western theology” among Asian Christians in his book Mangoes or Bananas? (Kindle location 209). Yung’s aim is not simply to inform Western believers about the issues Asian Christians are facing, but to encourage Asian Christians to devote themselves to developing biblical, contextualized theology for their specific contexts.
I would like to bring a few things to the readers’ attention before I go any further. The book is split up between 9 chapters: Introduction, Toward a Theology of Mission, Criteria for Missiological Theology (Parts 1 and 2), Asian Theologies up to World War Two, Ecumenical Theologies After World War Two, Conservative Asian Theologies After World War Two, Toward an Asian Christian Theology, and A Personal Journey (in the Second Edition only). Being that chapters 5-7 deal heavily with the works and influence of other Asian theologians, I will be commenting on Yung’s understanding of how their ideas have shaped Asian theology, rather than critiquing them directly. With that being said, Yung is a conservative evangelical so it will be apparent for readers to know where he stands in relation to the others. Finally, it will be difficult to understand a majority of the book without having a basic understanding of what Paul G. Hiebert calls “the flaw excluded middle” (Kindle location 1491). For Yung, any theology, whether it be Western or Asian, that does not address both ‘high religion’ and ‘folk religion’ is seriously lacking (Kindle location 245). Additionally, any theology that fails to speak to ‘signs and wonders’ of the Holy Spirit does not fully address the Asian Christian’s worldview (Kindle location 4634).
In Chapter 1, Yung takes the time to point out some of the main issues being faced by Asian Christians, issues that imported Western theology has either addressed improperly or neglected entirely. Yung claims that the differences between Asian and Western histories, as well as, worldviews are among some of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Additionally, Yung writes that Enlightenment thought, which has heavily influenced Western theology, “produce[s] a climate of skepticism that hampers the genuine expression of biblical faith (Kindle location 256).” Perhaps the most intriguing of the issues mentioned is that Western theology is viewed as ‘unengaged’—it has “emerged out of the academic and speculative tradition, rather than pastoral and missiological practice (Kindle location 337).” Yung uses these issues as a springboard for discussing the importance of contextual or ‘indigenous’ theology (Kindle location 425). Additionally, Yung emphasizes that a contextualized Asian theology will be birthed out of a proper understanding mission theology (Kindle location 652). Throughout the rest of the book, Yung keeps the theology of mission at the forefront of his mind, for which I applaud him.
Chapter 2 is essentially an analysis of what theology of mission is and is not, or better yet, what it should be in relation to developing Asian theology. Being that Yung is affiliated with the Lausanne Movement, it is no surprise that he takes a look at how it has helped shape our understanding of the mission of God. Yung also does a good job here of pointing out the good and bad that has arisen from a more ecumenical approach. For Yung, mission is “comprehensive,” not confined to evangelism or church planting, rather it includes “deliverance from diseases and demon powers, as well as sociopolitical action and justice in the world (Kindle location 1219).” He carries this discussion over into chapter 3, “Criteria for a Missiological Theology (Part 1).”
Again, Yung takes the time to stress how vital contextualized theology is. Specifically, he provides definitions for things such as evangelism and pastoral ministry from a missiological perspective (Kindle location 1443). Western readers may disagree with his conclusions, especially in terms of the role ‘signs and wonders’ play in ministry, but they cannot deny that the issues addressed are questions that non-Westerners have. Being that I now live in Asia, I found Yung’s conclusions to ring very true. I especially liked the following statement: “For, if our worldviews miss out on some dimension of reality, we will fail to bring the gospel to bear that aspect of reality (Kindle Location 1524).” Western Christians can learn a lot from Yung in this regard; we not only need to contextualize our theology, but we need to also consider the blind spots our own worldviews may have to reality. Thankfully, Yung states, the Holy Spirit can be trusted to lead people in the way of truth despite our mistakes (location 1717). Chapter 4 (Part 2) deals heavily with the hot-button issues of pluralism and inclusivism. Yung argues that these are not really Asian notions, although aspects do exist in some Asian religions. Instead, He argues that pluralism and relativism came out of liberal-Western thought (Kindle location 2261). Furthermore, Yung explains that the majority of world religions are actually exclusivist in many of their claims.
Suffice it to say, Yung finds many problems with Western liberalism, but to be clear, he is not anti-West. In fact, readers will find many places throughout the book where Yung celebrates all that the Western Church has done for the Asian Church. (Kindle location 4472). However, he stresses the idea that Asian Christians should be mindful and vigilant as they theologize for themselves, being careful not to make some of the same mistakes the Church in the West has made. In chapters 5-7, Yung is not simply looking at some prominent Asian theologians in recent history, he is demonstrating the ripples that Western liberalism and dualistic thinking have created in Asian theology. This idea is best summed up at the end of chapter 7: “Underneath the Asian ‘clothes’ and ‘colors’ that have been given to these theologies, we have found layers and layers of Enlightenment and dualistic thought. It appears that mature examples of a truly contextual Asian theology have yet to emerge (Kindle location 4094).” In chapter 8, Yung proposes some key ideas to consider if the Asian Church want to see a change in this trend.
Yung likens chapter 8, “Toward an Asian Theology,” to the drawing together of threads. All of the issues have been presented; it is now time to present some solutions. I personally believe this is where Yung’s writing really shines, as it is exceedingly practical and contextual for Asian readers, and helpful for Western missionaries. First, Yung list off some of the ‘literary genres’ Asian theologians should devote themselves to addressing; they include: biblical exegesis, apologetics, systematic theology, ancestral practices, ‘healing, exorcism, and the miraculous,’ Christian leadership patterns, ethics, personal ethics, and a theology of social engagement. While Yung commends the Church in Asian for its good grasp of evangelism and pastoral care, he argues that much more can be done to help Asian Christians “come to a deeper grasp of the message of the Bible in its totality (Kindle location 4191).”
Yung also mentions some of his concerns for contextualization in Asian theology, one of which may not sit well with more conservative believers. Yung argues for more ‘dialogue with Asian religions’ to show respect, effectively communicate the Gospel across cultures, and cooperate with those working towards social change (Kindle location 4398). While I agree with Yung’s reasons for dialogue, I did feel uncomfortable with his position on “salvation of those who do not have explicit faith in Christ (Kindle location 4407),” but perhaps this is because of my conservative background. I think herein lies one of the reasons Yung wrote the book. It is easy for me as a Western missionary to simply teach what I have been taught without contextualizing or considering that I may be wrong. So, although some discomfort may arise for Western readers from what Yung says, it is not because Yung is unorthodox, rather some issues Western minds have never really tackled. It here that the Asian Church can be of significant help (Kindle location 4218).
Since chapter 9 is more autobiographical and in Yung’s own words “repetitious,” I will conclude with his postscript which explains the title of the book itself. However, I encourage readers to interact with Chapter 9 as it helps paint a picture of how Yung has had to wrestle with many, if not all, of the issues presented in the book.
Yung brings his book to a close by comparing the differences between a banana and a mango. He explains that while Asians love bananas, they are “of uncertain origins (Kindle location 4483).” The mango, however, is uniquely Asian— “the sweet, succulent flesh of the mango is prized much more highly (Kindle Location 4488).” In relation to theology, Yung believes that a majority of Asian theology is like the banana. It looks yellow on the outside, but on the inside, it is white. In other words, Asian theology is just Western theology dressed up to look Asian. Yung says we need more mangoes, or Asian theology that is Asian through and through. He says this is crucial if Asian Christians are to develop a “clearer sense of self-identity” and to heal from any divisions caused by the impositions of those ‘without’ (Kindle location 4504).
As an American Christian living in Thailand, Mangoes or Bananas? is one of the most helpful and insightful books I have read since moving overseas. It opened my eyes not only to the issues my Asian brothers and sisters in Christ are facing, it also taught me how my own culture has influenced the Church in Asia today. Being that this book is more academic in nature, I know that it will not appeal to everyone. However, I think this should be required reading for seminary students regardless of what continent they are serving. The Western Church needs to become much more acquainted with the plight of the Eastern Church. Yung’s book is a great place to start!