Holy smokes, Batman! They're proselytizing!

Here at GetReligion, we're a generally amiable group. There's not a lot of backbiting or harsh words among your friendly neighborhood ghostbusters. We get along just fine, thank you very much. Except maybe for today.

A little tug-of-war ensued between Sarah and me over who would get to critique the following story. After Mollie shared the link with our crew, I quickly called dibs, prompting this note from Sarah:

Oh shoot! I was literally reading this and thinking how awesome it is for a post.

Kind of like the Jelly of the Month Club in the holiday classic "Christmas Vacation," this 4,000-word story by Bloomberg Businessweek is "the gift that keeps on giving."

Story might not be the right word to describe this hard-hitting investigative expose (sarcasm intended) on the fact that, believe it or not, evangelical Christian high schools in the U.S. that enroll students from China teach them about Jesus. (I'll pause for a moment and let that shocking news sink in.)

The headline says it all about the tone of this report:

Chinese Atheists Lured to Find Jesus at U.S. Christian Schools

The top of the story:

Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Haiying Wu’s family in Shandong Province wasn’t religious. After a born-again Texan teaching English in China advised her that Christian schools in the U.S. are safe and academically strong, she enrolled at Ben Lippen High School in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ben Lippen required her to attend church and chapel, take Bible class, and join a Bible study group. At first, she didn’t understand “why you need to believe in something you can’t view or touch,” she said. Gradually, it began to make sense. When the house parents in her dorm showed the 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” she wept. Shortly before her 2009 graduation, she was baptized.

Her parents were taken aback. “In China, I don’t think there’s any chance I would have become a Christian,” said Wu, 21, a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans. “It takes a lot to convert someone. Because Ben Lippen is such a strong religious environment, it makes you feel you have to learn about Christianity, and how come everybody around you believes.”

As evangelical schools capitalize on the desire of affluent Chinese families for the prestige of an American education, many Chinese students are learning first-hand how the Bible Belt got its name.

While proselytizing is banned in China, Protestant -- and, to a lesser extent, Catholic -- high schools are doing their missionary work on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Through placement agents and religious networking, they’re recruiting growing numbers of students from China, most of them atheists, and encouraging them to convert, in the hope that some of them will spread the faith back home.

As I read the story, I couldn't help but smile. I imagined the reporter — totally aghast at the wicked proselytizing occurring at the hands of evil evangelicals in the Bible Belt — doing his best to control his blood pressure as he typed. Undoubtedly, an extremely somber soundtrack played in the background as the piece was edited.

I wanted to be irritated at the slanted perspective of the report. Instead, I was reminded of country comedian Jeff Foxworthy's "My Wife's Family" bit in which he talks about his father-in-law waking up at 4:45 in the morning and playing the Discovery Channel at full volume while Foxworthy's trying to sleep. The comedian notes:

It’s a weird sensation to be mad and learning at the same time.

This story fits that description. While much of the piece is laughable to anyone who knows anything about evangelical Christianity — or for that matter, Christian inroads in China — the report contains a lot of detailed information, in many cases hurting its own thesis that proselytizing is harming Chinese students and their families.

Interestingly enough, the story opens with a Chinese student who converted to Christianity and ends the same way (with a different student). In both cases, the students are content with their decision. The piece quotes Christian school officials who freely acknowledge a desire to share Jesus with foreign students (while claiming that they make their Christian affiliations and requirements crystal clear to Chinese applicants). In a story about Christian schools "luring" Chinese students to proselytizing environments, I found this section telling:

Guan Yuntian, a 15-year-old from Beijing, was interviewed by three schools, including Northland.

“Religious school is fine for me,” she said. “The school will be better disciplined than other schools,” and the tuition lower. “It’s not bad to have a religion as it may help me to be stronger.”

Zhang Shaoxuan, the father of another girl at the fair, would gladly send her to a Christian school, he said.

“Both religious school and private schools are fine, the public schools are what you don’t want to be in,” he said. “Because there will be all kinds of odd students there.”

The premise of the report is that Chinese parents are upset by an apparent "bait-and-switch" approach by Christian schools recruiting their children and that the Chinese students are victims of deceptive marketing:

Plunged with little preparation into an intense religious environment, Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Some shed their skepticism and become Christians, delighting school officials and dismaying their families in China.

Missing from the report is evidence to back up the claim that Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Meanwhile, not a single "dismayed" Chinese parent is quoted in the story. (I also wondered if there are perhaps any closet Christian parents in China purposely sending their children to the U.S. Christian schools. That question, of course, is not raised.)

Alas, the story is worth a read. For all its faults, it provides some compelling background and anecdotes. And a few chuckles, too.

Photo via Shutterstock

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