(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Joseph Kitagawa came to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II to further his studies in theology. He was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, when the government ordered the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans in the United States. The experience of living in a concentration camp with others of Japanese descent provided Kitagawa with two spiritual insights he could never have gained had history allowed him a peaceful academic career at Berkeley. The first was into the essentially racist nature of Eurocentric culture, including the very Christianity he had embraced before his arrival in the country. The second was into the nature of suffering and the resilience of Asian spirituality as demonstrated by the daily heroism of incarcerated Japanese Americans.

These insights shaped much of Kitagawa’s distinguished academic career in theology at the University of Chicago, and they inform The Christian Tradition, perhaps the least known of his many publications. The very title invites readers to consider the European enculturation of Christianity as a sort of Babylonian captivity from which a release may be at hand. Kitagawa is never polemical in his treatment of church history; he is thoughtful and deliberate and always careful not to demean the many positive aspects of missionary activity in Asia. Yet this low-key academic approach makes the question he asks all the more tantalizing: What if Christianity had traveled not westward, where it was absorbed into the Greco-Roman civilization, but eastward, where it would have been absorbed into Asian culture? How different would it be?

Kitagawa looks back to the Renaissance and the Reformation, when the powerful new synthesis of culture and religion called modernity first raised its head. Individualism, capitalism, and colonialism were the children of this new synthesis; hand-in-hand with colonialism came the missionary effort. The discovery of Asian civilization at this time was as great a shock to the West as the discovery of the New World. For the rational, pigeonholing West, steeped in a...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Carnes, Tony, and Fenggang Yang, eds. Asian American Religions: The Making and Remaking of Borders and Boundaries. New York: New York University Press, 2004. This book explores the hybrid nature of religious expression in contemporary Asian American culture.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Kogawa, an Anglican like Kitagawa, explores the theme of Christianity and the Japanese-Canadian wartime experience. This novel embodies many of Kitagawa’s concerns in a powerful story of suffering and love.

Moss, David M. “Internment and Ministry: A Dialogue with Joseph Kitagawa.” Journal of Religion and Health 32:3 (September, 1993). In this dialogue Kitagawa reviews many of his research concerns, including the internment experience of Japanese Americans and the characteristics of Asian religions.