Michael Keevak’s The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625-1916 examines the discovery and reaction of the Christian Nestorian Stele in 1625 in the west, and to a lesser extent, in China itself.
The stele was erected in 781 and documents at least a hundred and fifty years of Christianity in China. It was buried during the persecution of foreign religions (including Buddhism) and not found until 1625. Keevak shows us how various westerners used the stele as a mirror for their own assumptions about China. In essence, western scholars and missionaries used the stele for the support their own religious or cultural delusions, not really understanding, or wanting to understand, the place of the stele in Chinese culture. So over and over again Keevak denounces various scholars and missionaries for living in their own times, and being subject to the opinions of their own times. We should very well ask, what else should they have done or been?
According to Keevak, no one really understands the stele correctly, even though he admits that deciphering the meaning of the stele is incredibly difficult. When Keevak gives a contemporary example of how the stele has been used, Palmer’s book The Jesus Sutras, he doesn’t have much good to say about this response either, even though it is overwhelmingly positive about the Chinese context of the stele.
So what does Keevak want us to take away from this book? That we ALL view the world through culturally conditioned lenses? Sure, then why condemn anyone who makes an interpretation of the meaning of the stele? Readers of this book will wonder what Keevak’s message is: what are we to think of history and our ability to interpret it by his presentation of the interpretation of the Nestorian Stele? Are we simply doomed to always get it wrong?