Christ of the Indian Road, Written by E. Stanley Jones, The Abingdon Press, 1925, pp. 213, ISBN 978-0687063773
Review by Jeff Morton
1. Why Now?
You may be wondering why I am reviewing a book first published in 1925. It could be that I’m just a slow reader. It’s more likely that since my own studies did not include Hinduism and India, Jones simply did not show up on my radar.
I was first introduced to E. Stanley Jones’ name as I became informed about the insider movements (IM). Rick Brown, Joshua Massey, Brad Gill, and a few others cite Jones,[i] and being the type that enjoys footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies as much as the author’s text, I noticed Jones’ Christ of the Indian Road (1925) and The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person (1972). So I picked up both books.
Even though this Methodist missionary to India wrote Christ of the Indian Road more than eighty years ago, the style is not ponderous, but quite pleasurable. His chapters are mostly short and to the point, only occasionally going a bit further than I would have liked. One chapter in fact–chapter 11, “The Concrete Christ”–is a beautifully crafted portrait of our Lord that serves as an eloquent reminder of whom we serve. The book is worth having for this chapter alone; however, many other chapters of the book are not without their problems.
2. Now Where?
Let me speak first about my own methodology for this review. As with every book I read, I make my notes in the margin; but for those works that seem more important, I take full-fledged notes on my computer. I include a few of my own thoughts and questions interspersed throughout the notes. With Christ of the Indian Road I took many notes, asked more than a few questions, and scratched my head incessantly. I say all this because I believe the book is an important contribution to missions, but gives me pause.
Having now read the book twice within this last year, my wider view of Jones is as follows: he was not a proponent of IM, but he made many statements that are seemingly IM oriented. And I noticed that when he made such a statement, his words were often–not always, just often–mitigated or nullified in the following paragraph. My own notes show this back and forth proto-pro-IM and proto-anti-IM movement. So what do I make of all this–and more importantly, how have I come to understand the man?
It’s important to remember that the context of Jones’ book was colonial India and its struggles for nationalism as exemplified by the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Jones saw things at ground level that most observers of India probably missed. He hoped the movement of India would be toward Jesus even as it moved away from British rule. Hinduism could become Christian; Hindus would become Hindu Christians; the spirit of Jesus would work to dissolve Hinduism. Like Samuel Zwemer, my own hero of the faith who during this same period mistakenly believed that Islam faced imminent death,[ii] Jones was proven wrong. But the air breathed by many observers of Islam and Hinduism of the early twentieth century seemed to have produced these dreams that led to nowhere. If it was the optimism of the human spirit, the inebriative affect of the breakdown of colonialism, or the brightness of the future because of the continued industrial revolution, I don’t know. I am convinced, however, that Jones was a thoughtful Christian in love with India and the Indian people, longing and hoping for the best possible outcome in an era of upheaval.
But I don’t want to let E. Stanley Jones off the hook either. He is one of several who stand at the headwaters of IM.[iii] The toxic waste we find at the delta may not contaminate him, but some of his ruminations about the nature of religions have contributed to the grimy, brackish sludge that has polluted an entire river, causing irreparable harm to the ocean of world missions. Now you know my bias. I loved portions of the book, but I was troubled by a large part of it.
3. Take Heed
There is much to learn from Jones. His first chapter, “The Messenger and the Message,” discusses a sound approach to proclamation:
- “Be absolutely frank–there should be no camouflage in hiding one’s meaning or purpose by noncommittal subjects” (21).
- “Announce beforehand that there is to be no attack upon anyone’s religion” (21-22).
- “Allow them to ask questions at the close–face everything and dodge no difficulties” (22).
- “Get the leading non-Christians of the city . . . to become chairmen of our meetings” (22).
- “Christianity must be defined as Christ” (22).
- “Christ must be interpreted in terms of Christian experience rather than through mere argument” (22).
These principles are worthy of our admiration. I am especially happy to see the third: “face everything and dodge no difficulties.” Jones was an unabashed apologist for Jesus. He handled the tough questions. He shirked from no one and no thing during his question and answer periods. He was no Mother Theresa, but he was certainly not a shrinking violet either.
A second of Jones’ thoughts struck a positive chord: why we do missions. Our sole motive is Jesus: who he is, what he has done, what he is doing, and what he will do. The second chapter is biblically focused on our goal and motive: it is an excellent reminder that our motives must emanate from who our Lord is. Likewise, Jones’ discussion of “The Great Hindrance” (chapter 6) is a plea from a Westerner to the church in the West to understand that “the whole program of the evangelization of the East depends upon our taking a Christian attitude toward the nations of the Orient” (101). The great hindrance to the gospel, in Jones’ estimation, is not India itself, but the spirit and reality of colonialism that creates animosity of all things Western–namely Christianity–in the Eastern mind. The chapter also includes an interesting conversation the author had with Mahatma Gandhi concerning Christianity in India, living the gospel, and a theology of religions (cf. 118-120).
Third, the author rightly places much of his attention on Jesus. Jesus is attractive to Indians; Christianity is not. Jesus is spiritual and wise; Christians are not. Jesus is for India and Indians; the church of Christendom is not. Jones makes the case that our presentation of Christianity must be a presentation of Jesus. The important doctrines of our faith, if presented abstractly–that is, without a direct connection to Jesus–are difficult to follow. He writes, “A converted Jew was talking to an unconverted Jew when the latter asked, ‘Suppose there were a son born among us and it were claimed that he was born of a virgin, would you believe it?’ The converted Jew very thoughtfully replied, ‘I would if he were such a Son.’ That is the point. He makes it possible to believe in it. But the virgin birth does not carry Jesus; he carries it” (162).[iv]
My final comment about Jones is that his love for the Indian people jumps off every page. The man adored the spirituality of the nation. He was enamored with intuitive Indian religiosity. Jones saw the real possibility for an indigenous Indian church to become a significant voice within the global church. His penultimate chapter provides a glimpse of what Indian Christianity might look like. It is an insightful glimpse into a worldview so foreign to the West that it remains a relevant study for those interested in India and Hinduism today.
4. Take Care
Christ of the Indian Road offers up some thoughts to which I would warn the reader: be wary. In the context of the IM as it is today–not in the context of Jones’ India of the early twentieth century–these notions are more troubling than uplifting. I have divided this section into two parts: where Jones is IM-like, and his theology of religions. The first section is a discussion of a few of Jones’ most egregious IM-like principles. The second section is a discussion of Jones’ weak notion of a theology of religions and its problems.
4.1 Seemingly IM
Among the many issues I take with IM is the new understanding of the church vis-Ã -vis the kingdom it offers to missions.[v] Jones wrote, “Christianity is actually breaking out beyond the borders of the Christian Church and is being seen in the most unexpected places. . . . In a spiritual movement like that of Jesus it is difficult and impossible to mark its frontiers” (53). What bothers me about the statement is Jones assumed following Jesus (Christianity) is somehow separate from the church; that salvation has nothing to do with a biblical ecclesiology; that the kingdom and church are unrelated.
Regarding the kingdom, Jones made a remarkable statement that requires a rejoinder or two, maybe even three. He saw two manners by which the kingdom is made evident: first as something small and insignificant growing into something big and majestic; and second as leaven. He believed the first manner “speaks of the outward growth of Christianity . . . organized expression of the Kingdom, namely the Christian Church” (53-54). In other words, the fact that the church is present in so much of the world, and having grown from a group of twelve men, is indicative of the church with its organization, denominations, boards, and conferences. But he also believed the work of the kingdom is like leaven: “silent permeation of the minds and hearts of men by Christian truth . . . but scarcely knowing what is happening . . . they would be Christianized from within” (54).
Jones first seems to have conflated the kingdom with the church. This has been our argument with the Roman Catholic–and others–for many centuries: the church is not the kingdom; the kingdom is not the church. And in the second case, he is correct that the kingdom is like leaven, but his conclusion is a non sequitur. Why?
The kingdom is anything but Christianization, that process whereby a society wears the clothes of a Christian civilization without “producing the fruit of it” (Mt 21:43). The kingdom is anything but a type of creeping awareness that fills you with surprise so that one morning you wake up saying, “Hey, I’m full of Christian truth.” If this were a description of the kingdom, I’d rather visit the magic kingdom than the kingdom of heaven.
To further bolster the leaven-ity of the kingdom, Jones’ offered a story of a Brahman who came to him saying, “‘You do not known how far your gospel has gone. . . . I would call myself a Christian Brahman, for I am trying to live my life upon the principles and spirit of Jesus, though I may never come out and be an open follower of Jesus Christ, but I am following him'” (64). Jones’ reaction to this was, “I was not discouraged, my heart was singing to the music of things, for I saw my risen Lord entering behind closed doors once again and showing his hands and his side and speaking peace to disciples I had not known” (64).
Jones called the man a disciple. Jones confused the gospel, which transforms, with principles derived from the gospel. The Brahman Christian’s fear of not coming out to live his life in the open for Jesus means his culture had the greater impact on his life than the alleged principles he was learning from Jesus. Why didn’t Jones say what Jesus might have said to Nicodemus? “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3).
On the other hand, Jones does soften these ideas with the following:
Do not misunderstand me. I am not satisfied with an interest in Jesus–I cannot be satisfied this side of allegiance–utter and absolute. But if you give me an inch in the soul of India, I will take it and appeal for that next inch until the whole soul of this great people is laid at the feet of the Son of God. (65)
This tempers any idea that he sees the Christian Brahman as a disciple of Christ who is transformed by the Gospel, when in fact the man is merely a disciple of the principles of Jesus without having encountered the risen Lord, experiencing a new heart. I am giving Jones the benefit of the doubt here. I am not sure I have interpreted him correctly, but I remain confident at about eighty-two percent.
4.2 Theology of Religions
The longer I am around the teachings of IM, the greater my wonder at the lack of solid biblical thinking of IM’s proponents about other religions. In the case of Jones–someone who is not a protagonist for IM–the same is true. First let’s see what Jones said about Hinduism, and then I’ll offer at least one possible reason behind his understanding of the religion.
4.2.1 Jesus and Hinduism
Chapter 10, “Christ and the Other Faiths,” begins with this question: “As Christ meets India and her past, what is his demand?” (169). What does Jesus expect from Indians who would call him Lord? In other words, what would Indian Christianity look like nestled within the context of Hinduism? When Islam arrived in India it demanded that Indians forget their past and forge a new identity based on the life of the Arabian prophet. Jones poignantly asked, “Does Jesus take the same attitude?” (169).
Every time I see a religion foisted upon the text of the Bible, I physically wince. As proponents of IM will often make Judaism analogous to Islam,[vi] so Jones has done the same with Hinduism. Jones thought Jesus
may turn to India as he turned to Judaism and say, ‘I came not to destroy but to fulfill.’ Just as he gathered up in his own life and person everything that was fine and beautiful in Jewish teaching and past and gave it a new radiant expression, so he may do the same with India. . . . the words that he used would imply that, for it is a generic term: ‘I came not to destroy but to fulfill,’ it is locally applied to the Law and the Prophets, but capable of a wider application to truth found anywhere. (emphasis mine; 170)
Finally, Jones was asked, “‘Don’t you think that Hinduism will gradually evolve and change into Christianity without losing its good points?’ I assured him that I thought that very thing was taking place!” (176).
These citations are an index of, in my humble opinion, sloppy theologizing about other religions. First, Jones attempted to place Hinduism under the umbrella of “a wider application to truth found anywhere.”[vii] Jesus’ fulfillment of the Torah is now applied to Hinduism’s dharma (and why not apply them to the very different dharma of Buddhism, sharia of Islam, or even the kami of Shintoism?). This expansive hermeneutic dulls the differentiation between the biblical Jesus and Jesus as he is found in other religions. It’s hard to understand why Jones glosses over the context of Jesus’ statement, “I came not to destroy but to fulfill.” He was speaking of the Torah and Temple, not simply every religion. Using Jones’ non-specific-but-let’s-have-Jesus-mean-everything hermeneutic, one could argue Jesus also did not come to destroy Spam luncheon meat, but to introduce us to new Spam Lite with 25% less sodium.[viii] Second, Jones’ understanding that Hinduism may evolve into the Indian form of Christianity is virtually the same IM notion that Islam may be reformed to become what Islam was originally meant to be: an Arabic form of orthodox Christianity.[ix] This is all extremely sloppy thinking from a man who should know better.
So why is such slipshod thinking coming from Jones? The next section offers one reason why I believe this may have happened.
4.2.2 Micro Muffles the Macro
Examining an idea, a worldview or a religion and coming to a conclusion about it is a straightforward process: read the other religion’s scriptures and theologians, and talk to the adherents of that faith. It is normal to generally develop a negative view about the religion. But what if the one researching the religion has good friends who are practitioners of that religion? It is often the case that knowing the adherents of a religion tempers our expressions about that faith. For instance, I have a good friend whose brother is a homosexual. My friend, a pastor and wonderful man of God, does not often speak of homosexuality. The relationship with his brother has softened my friend’s expression of biblical condemnation. Of course he knows homosexuality is sinful behavior, but to publically condemn it is to hurt his relationship with his brother. This same attitude can be seen among us missionaries. We know Hindus. They are great people. They are hospitable and kind. Hindu fathers love their children; Hindu mothers are as nurturing as any. The missionary simply enjoys drinking tea and talking with his friends. Why not? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the company of non-Christians. So, what is happening?
The macro (by this I mean the larger view of Hinduism) is muted by the micro (by this I mean the personal, intimate relationships with individual Hindus). When the macro is silenced or smothered by the micro, we lose our prophetic voice. Is it possible that the warmth of one’s friendly relations can muffle the urgent need to see Hindus fall in love with Jesus? As exhibit “A” I offer a conversation I had with one proponent of IM some time ago. We were talking about a theology of religions and he said to me, “When you take such a negative view of Islam, your witness ends up as polemic rather than a presentation of Jesus.” You see, this is an assumed fear of IM proponents–at least it seems to be. If we are not more positive in our approach to the religion of Islam, we will find it more difficult to be positive to Muslims.
There is some truth to that notion. I understand that when one takes a completely negative view of Islam or Hinduism–that is, this non-Christian religion has nothing of value for the convert to remain in–it may be natural to make every encounter with a Muslim or Hindu a matter of polemics. Ironically I have found this to be quite the opposite among those of us who share Christ with Muslims and share the same non-IM friendly view of Islam. We make friends of Muslims; we do not demonize Muslims. In other words, we have not lost our prophet’s edge simply because we understand Islam for what it is: a satanic religion of bondage. If anything, our efforts of making friends, speaking prophetically into the lives of Muslims, sharing stories of Jesus, and offering our testimonies of how we moved from darkness to light, are motivated by a biblical understanding of Islam, not a desire to maintain a friendship.
I say all of this to explain how I understand E. Stanley Jones, a wonderfully gifted and Christ-like man, could say the things he did about Hinduism. His friendships with Hindus may have fogged his biblical compass. His love for India might have shaped his understanding of Hinduism. His closeness to religiously inclined people could have massaged his reading of scripture. The micro adversely influenced the macro. The macro was muffled by the micro; perhaps even strangled it.
5. Take Note
I cannot emphasize enough how valuable this book is if for no other reason than Jones’ chapter, “The Concrete Christ.” This alone is worth the cost of the book. But the remaining portions of his work are not without merit. Jones is provocative, but not for provocation’s sake. He is insightful for missionaries who want to understand India, despite the age of the book. I simply wish the brother were still alive so we could kick these issues around a bit more; I think he might eventually change his mind.
[i] Cf. Rick Brown, “The Kingdom of God and the Mission of God: Part 2” International Journal of Frontiers Missions 28(2): 49-59. Brown cites Jones as writing that the church is the various forms of Christianity, and that there many not in the visible church yet in the kingdom (56). Brad Dill, “The Kingdom-Minded Apostle: E. Stanley Jones and the Integration of Kingdom, Church and Mission” IJFM 28(1): 32. No author, “Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims: An Exposition.” IJFM 26(4): 189-198. Tim Timmons, “Christianity Isn’t the Way–Jesus Is.” IJFM 25(3): 157-160. Joshua Massey, “God’s Amazing Diversity in Drawing Muslims.” IJFM 17(1): 5-14. Massey cites Jones as a supporter of C5 efforts.
[iii] The fathers of IM in my never to be humble opinion are Eugene Nida (for his contributions to translation principles practiced by linguists today), Charles Kraft (for his application of Nida to communication theory and the notion of the relativeness of cultures to anthropology and hermeneutics), and Fouad Accad (for a weak biblical theology of religions in his Building Bridges: Christianity and Islam).
[v] Throughout this review I don’t expound on IM, but when I make comparisons of Jones’ ideas with IM, I reference articles that elucidate the IM view; cf. Kenneth Higgins, “Inside What? Church, Culture, Religion and Insider Movements in Biblical Perspective.” St Francis Magazine 5(4): 74-91.
[vii] Although it comes seventy years later, perhaps this article shows the fulfillment of Jones’ hopes for Hinduism’s evolution: Raghav Krishna, “From ‘Krishna Bhakti’ to ‘Christian’ to ‘Krista Bhakti.’ ” IJFM 24(4): 173-177.
[ix] Cf. John and Anna Travis, “Contextualization Among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists: A Focus on Insider Movements.” Mission Frontiers (September-October 2005): 12-15 (especially p. 15); Kevin Higgins, “Identity, Integrity and Insider Movements” A Brief Paper Inspired by Timothy C. Tennent’s Critique of C-5 Thinking.” IJFM 23(3): 117-123 (especially p. 121).