A history of Christianity
K.A. STEENBRINK and J.S. ARITONANG, eds.
A history of Christianity in Indonesia
Leiden: Brill, 2008. xvi, 1,004 pp. ISBN 9789004170261, hb €179 /US$ 267
Reviewed by R.H. Barnes, University of Oxford
This excellent book not only tells its story (or stories) very well, but is also full of interesting insights on many topics, some of which present information not readily available elsewhere. It has been put together by an impressive assemblage of leading experts, mostly Catholics and Protestants, and including one Muslim. Indonesia is of course the largest Muslim nation in the world. Christians, however, form an important and growing minority, whose influence has sometimes been out of proportion to their numbers.
Christians were reported as early as 650 AD as being in Qalah, possibly Kalah in Malaya. The Portuguese brought their religion with them and established Christian toeholds in the Moluccas and Solor early in the 16th century, and Francis Xavier was active in Ambon in 1546-1547. These early communities were vulnerable and suffered much through the rivalries between Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. Catholic priests were lacking from 1600 to 1808 in the territories of the Dutch East India Company, because the Company prohibited the Catholic religion. A religious duty was written into its charter of 1623. It supported Protestant mission activity in some areas, while in others it confined itself to pastoral care for mostly European communities. However, the personnel of the Company were never confined to members of the Reformed Church. There were even Lutherans and Catholics among the governors-general. Following the Restoration of the Dutch East Indies to a new Dutch colonial government in the early 19th century, the colonial government did not consider the church or the mission to be its own affair. Catholicism was permitted from this period, but there were few priests available for much of the century. When Protestant and Catholic mission activity gradually became more vigorous the government maintained a somewhat loose policy of preventing ‘dual missions’ (different groups of missionaries working in the same region), which the Catholics never really accepted. Although there were some regional successes of both versions of Christianity before the 20th century, it was in that century that they finally gained significant strength, but large scale conversions waited until the government demanded that all Indonesians adopt one or another of the world religions following the mass slaughter of alleged communists in 1965 and afterwards.
One peculiarity of this book is that the authors of the individual contributions are not listed in the table of contents. Instead the reader has to go to the end of each chapter just before the bibliography to find out who has written what. Perhaps this arrangement derives from the ambition, as the editors put it, of giving an encyclopedic view of the history of Christians in Indonesia and from the desire to emphasise that the result is a collective work. Though some chapters have a single author, many are multi-authored, typically with the sections on Catholics and Protestants the responsibility of different persons. Though in general the book is a well integrated whole, there are a few minor slips, which perhaps is inevitable in an undertaking of this magnitude. For example there are four references to the ‘Grooff affair’ of 1844-1847. Only in the last is there a brief description of what this affair might have been. For a full explanation the reader will have to turn to pages 22-25 of the first volume of Steenbrink’s Catholics in Indonesia, but no reference is given in this book to that passage. The various chapters contain numerous references to conflicts between secular and religious authorities as well as to intramural and inter-denominational conflicts and to the ‘race’ between Islam and Christianity, but the book itself in no way contributes to those polemics and conflicts.
The first part covers the period up to 1800 with chapters on Christianity in pre-colonial Indonesia, a race between Islam and Christianity in the period 1530-1670 (the single chapter authored by a Muslim), Catholic conversion in the Moluccas, Minahasa and Sangihe-Talaud in the period 1512-1680, the Dominican mission in the Solor-Timor region from 1562 until 1800, and finally the arrival and consolidation of Protestantism in the Moluccas between 1605 and 1800. Part Two contains a national overview from 1800 until 2005, as well as nine regional surveys. The regional chapters cover the Southeastern Islands (Nusa Tenggara Timur) – Protestant and Catholic – Christianity in Papua, Moluccan Christianity and its relation to Agama Ambon (‘Ambon Religion’– a mixture of Christianity or Islam and traditional, i.e. indigenous, religion) and Islam in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as Christianity in Minahasa, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Sumatra, Java and Bali. Part Three calls itself ‘Issues of National Concern’. Its six chapters cover theological thinking by Indonesian Christians between 1850 and 2000, the ecumenical movement in Indonesia and the National Council of Churches, the growth of Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Indonesian Chinese Christian communities, Christian art in Indonesia and finally Christian media, where the reader will find, for example, interesting information about the founding and financing of important Christian national daily newspapers.
Of the many issues broached a brief sample may be mentioned. Among them are the shifting attitudes toward indigenous culture (including architecture and dance), the matter of double loyalties towards local and introduced religions, the history of Bible translation, recognising marriages (including ‘mixed’ marriages), policies against double missions, baptism, the revival of traditional religion and customary law (adat), admission of Indonesians to the ministry, the relation of the mission to the colonial state (and indeed of the hierarchy to the government of the day), the social background of missionaries, and finally, the general issue of inculturation and contexualisation of the gospel. Much more attention needs to be given to events of 1965 and their aftermath and to the role of Christians and their institutions in relation to them – a point made by John Prior and Eduard Jebarus who draw attention specifically to the so-far unrecorded massacre of between 800 to 2,000 ‘suspected communists’, almost all Catholics, in Maumere, Flores in 1966. They also draw attention to fears about desecration of the host in East Nusa Tenggara in the mid to late 1990s and resulting murders and destruction of shops of innocent Muslim traders in various places on Flores and Timor.
This history of Indonesian Christianity is an extremely useful and well-documented reference resource which will be welcome to scholars of any discipline with a professional interest in Indonesia. It should have a broader appeal as well to other Southeast Asianists or indeed anyone with an interest in major transformations in the colonial and post-colonial world.