Dream of the Red Mansion and Christian Culture: Interpreting Social Culture through Christ

A holy Bible.
A holy Bible.
By CCD contributor: Da Mo September 22nd, 2020

If we compare Tao Te Ching or I Ching with Christian culture, it seems understandable and acceptable. However, if someone compares the classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Mansion with Christian culture, it will inevitably make him or her confused. It so happened that I came across such an article the other day, and it appeared in the form of an essay. Its author was definitely serious and earnest. Perhaps it was the humble wording of the author that influenced me, which made me read on. Otherwise, like many Christians, I would have made a quick judgment and firmly denied it before I finished reading it.

Leaving aside whether the argument in the text is right or wrong, and whether the discussion in the text is far-fetched, I think, in the first place, the author's courageous attempt in his essay should be appreciated and encouraged. As the article suggests, the author is obviously not a believer but a scholar who specializes in Christianity. In the Dream of the Red Mansion, the novelist perceives the way of the world, an essayist folk custom, poetically fantastic and artistic conceptions, and philosophically profound philosophies. In the eyes of a scholar specialising in Christianity, it is reasonable to find cultural Christian elements in this magnificent masterpiece.

In fact, this is true not only for Dream of the Red Mansion but also for any other work of literature that everyone, when reading it, will have their own perspective. Because everyone has their own perspective, standing at a different place will naturally lead him or her to notice "different pictures from different angles", something that is not surprising. Therefore, it is normal for Christians or scholars specializing in Christianity to find some elements consistent with Christian culture from the vast historical data. Not only did God's actions occur throughout the Bible but also existed widely in various classical works. This is because any classic is a true reflection and record of human society and life. That is to say, God has not only given His special revelation to His chosen people but has also given His universal revelation to the whole of mankind. As Paul said, "God's eternal power and divinity are clearly known".

At present, a large number of scholars specialising in Christianity have been raised by God, and their contributions to Christian culture are particularly remarkable. If you browse online bookstores, you will see many works written by many scholars specialising in Christianity. Some of these scholars are not Christians, but their rational understanding of Christ is far deeper than that of many Christians. It can be seen that God's grace towards human beings and opportunities for people to know him are not unique to Christians alone.

However, when we Christians, who are chosen by God, admit that God's actions can be seen everywhere, we are actually denying it at the same time. It is believed that as long as we are loyal to God, we should reject culture and think that culture belongs to this depraved world. To those non-Christian scholars specialising in Christianity, believers are always despised with disdain and they even refuse to read their published works.

In fact, this tendency towards "anti-intellectualism" is not just occuring now. As early as the time of the early church Fathers, when Christians were being persecuted, there was a negative attitude towards Greek and Roman culture. The most typical representative figure was Tertullian, the Latin Father of North Africa. At that time, Christians generally insisted on being loyal to Christ, refused bowing to the emperor, refused to be a soldier, refused participating in politics, and refused Greek philosophy and popular culture.

The influence of this belief led to the emergence of monks and nuns who lived in seclusion in the desert during the Medieval Ages. Many believers fled the world and tried their best to pursue the so-called holy "Dojo". Even after the Reformation, "Anabaptism" came on to the scene along with its "Mennonite Society" as well as British "Quakers", and even the famous Russian writer Tolstoy who once insisted on complete isolation from the surrounding culture. According to rumours, even now, there are still some believers in the United States and Canada who insist on rejecting modern civilization. They refuse to use electricity and drive cars and are isolated from the world. They make a living by farming.

The main reason for equating "culture" with "the world", for opposing culture, and for totally denying the inherent value of culture is that the devil can use culture for his purposes. So it is believed that culture itself must be evil. This type of idea causes a dilemna for a Christian's faith,  namely that they unconsciously think that they can be holy by dying to the flesh, but forget that the "world" is still in their minds, and that original sin in them is always remains.

Another idea is that Christ is within culture, that culture and the church can coexist, and that we can interpret culture through Christ or know Christ through culture. The most typical representative of this idea is Gnosticism which appeared in the 3rd century. Gnosticism changed Christianity into a philosophical ideology. After the Reformation, many thinkers took similar positions. For instance, John Locke, a famous British writer, wrote the book "The Rationality of Christianity".

Yet another idea is that "Christ is above culture", advocated by Titus Flavius Clements in the second century, and by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. It is believed that Christ is not opposed to culture but instead uses the fine elements of culture as tools to achieve His goals. On the one hand, Aquinas accepted Christ and culture, but on the other hand, insisted that Christ was far above culture. It is believed that Aristotle's philosophical system and human reasoning are gifts of God and should be accepted without hesitation.

However, Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation, believed that God is all good but human beings and culture are evil, and that Christians are in tension, living between the two in kind of a paradox. Christians are both sinners and righteous, believing, and questioning. Therefore, Christians are not only the people of the kingdom of God, but because they are human beings, also belong to the culture and cannot exist apart from it. Christians have the responsibility to participate with others in the system and affairs that this degenerate world pursues. However, it is not because of the perfection of this system nor its affairs but because "no authority is not from God". Because of Martin Luther's viewpoint, Christians are encouraged to join the army and be involved in politics, doing all kinds of work and devoting themselves to society.

However, in the elaboration of culture, the views of Augustine and Calvin should be used for reference. They believed that although culture is degenerate, it can be transformed, and may even be redeemed by God's power and grace. That is to say, although culture is tainted, its essence is not evil, and history shows a landscape in which God transforms and renews human beings and culture.

This is mainly manifested in three aspects. Firstly, from the perspective of creationism, everything is created by God, including culture which was originally beautiful. Although everything has been corrupted by sin, Christ’s having come into human culture is continuing this creative work. Secondly, from the perspective of human depravity, culture has been polluted by sin but is not evil in its essence. God naturally desires to redeem it, not replace and destroy it. Thirdly, from the point of view of historical progression, the entire history of humanity is a magnificent picture in which God's actions blend together with humanity's responses. What is displayed here is God's redemptive mind and expectation for mankind.

God not only wants to redeem mankind but also expects culture and the social climate to be redeemed and renewed. Jesus warned that Christians should be "salt and light" in this finite world in order to change this corrupted world and to show His love, thereby expecting mankind to be redeemed. Because of the influence of Christ, the culture of this world can be transformed and changed.

What we call "Christian culture" is actually the product of the influence of the Christian faith.  Christians have gradually developed it over a long period of time and it is the major part of Christian civilization. Our prayers, hymns, lectures, works, spiritual values, and moral ethics from the Bible, as well as other things exist because of Christianity. Christianity's unique theological ideas, methods of philosophical reflection, linguistic forms of expression, and artistic styles of writing make up this culture.

We need, however, to be clear about one thing, namely that the concerns of non-Christian scholars who specialize in Christianity are settled mainly by Christian thoughts and culture. The lack of profound religious belief experiences makes it difficult for them to be spiritually born again. This is also the most striking difference between Christians and non-Christians. Therefore, non-Christians must not be measured harshly by Christian standards.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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