The Singing Stone

In the Cappadocian valley of central Turkey is a geologically bizarre collection of mushroom shaped monoliths of stone. I have stood at the foot of these great creations of nature.  Over the centuries monks have carved dwellings into the limestone faces of the columns. I have sat on the stone benches inside these sacred places.   At night the wind blows through the canyons and if you listen closely you can hear the stones sing.

I have been listening to the Xian-Fu stone sing for the past 20 years. As I gaze upon a reproduction of it daily I can make out the distinct message of the music.

The Xian-Fu Stone in China has been called many names.

It has been called the Nestorian Monument,  The Nestorian Stone, or the Nestorian Stele but I believe the appellation “Nestorian” is incorrect after twenty years of study.  I prefer to now call it the Xian-Fu Stone for this is near where is was found and although moved a couple of times over 1300 years it is where it is located today in the Beilin Museum of Xian.

The stone was created and erected in 781 C.E. in China. It commemorates the presence of Christians was came from Persia 144 years earlier. The word Nestorian is not mentioned. This word refers to a group of Christians who only existed in the imagination of the Roman Catholic West. As odd as this accusation sounds, there were Christians in lands east of the Euphrates who spoke the language of Jesus, expanded eastward along the Silk Road, and underwent a process of transformation in theology and even language. Even though they were called Nestorians by the West they neither accepted this term nor did they believe in a theology as charged.

The Roman Catholic Church officially condemned these people as heretics in 451 C.E. but it was a false accusation at worst and at best a misunderstanding due to language and culture.

The divide between the Christians of the West and the East was enormous. Romans spoke Latin and Greek Christians East of the Euphrates preferred Syriac the language of Jesus and the early eastern Church. The West was a culture of Greek philosophy. The East was a culture of Semites barely discernable from their Jewish spiritual cousins. Finally, wars between the Persians and Rome permanently divided the Christian world. Christians who were Oriental gravitated to Persia and beyond. Occidental Christians remained in the West satisfied they were the true faith. After all, those beyond the Euphrates were “heretics.”

This set the stage for the 17th century when a stone monolith was discovered in China. It came to the attention of Jesuit missionaries. They interpreted it through the tradition and history of the “misunderstandings” between the churches of the West and East. The stone was declared to be Nestorian. What else could it be?

Re-investigation of the Nestorian controversy in recent years has revealed economic, political, and social motives were behind the controversy. It was a fight between Alexandria and Antioch for power and control over the eastern wing of Christianity

Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople in 428. He came from the Antioch school and was taught theology there by Theodore of Mopsuestia. He opposed a relatively new theological and devotional slogan Theotokos – affirming that Mary was the “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.” Nestorius was concerned with the thought that God might be seen to have had a new beginning of some kind, or that he suffered or died. None of these things could happen to the infinite God. Therefore, instead of a God-man, he taught that there was the Logos and the “man who was assumed.” He favored the term “Christ-bearer” (Christotokos) as a summary of Mary’s role, or perhaps that she should be called both “God-bearer” and “Man-bearer” to emphasize Christ’s dual natures. He was accused of teaching a double personality of Christ. Two natures, and two persons. He denied the charge.

Cyril of Alexandria stirred up the monks and the politicians to gain political and theological advantage over the Antiochian school.  Cyril even delayed the arrival of Eastern bishops at the council of 431 C.E. When the Easterners arrived, they were outraged and set up a rival council and condemned Cyril.The bishops asserted that one could no separate the human from the divine nature of Christ. It was all to no avail and Nestorius was sent into exile.

The efforts to condemn those in the East involved murder, deceit, and outright corruption. Nestorius and believers of the East were victims of this unholy effort. There is no reason to consider the appellation or the condemnation of “Nestorians” as valid in any sense.

This understanding of the misappropriation of a name opens our eyes to the true message of the stone. By stripping away the Nestorian problem we can ask new questions about the stone. Who are the Jing Jiao? Why did they come to China? What happened to them? Why do they use Buddhist and Daoist images and ideas?

When the stone was discovered sometime after 1623 it came to the attention of the Jesuits. Instead of reading the message of the stone they read into the stone their own message. It perpetrated a bias against the East that those believers who arose in the East far from the influence and control of the West. Their genius produced a thoroughly Asian, and dare I say, Chinese inspired Christianity woven out of the cloth of a culture free of Plato and Aristotle, and a fabric of faith born in the cities of refuge along the Silk Road.

In Michael Keevak’s book on the Xian-Fu stone he writes:

The thesis of this book is that when Westerners discussed the stone they were not really talking about China at all. The stone served as a kind of screen onto which they could project their own self-image and this is what they were looking at, not China. The stone came to represent the empire and its history for many Western readers, but only because it was seen as a tiny bit of the West that was already there. (The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625–1916. By Michael Keevak. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.p. 3)

This admission of misunderstanding by the West driven by it’s own bias and arrogance impeaches all that we thought we knew about the Stone. From the very beginning it was mislabeled and misappropriated for uses that only served westerns needs.

Perhaps we can look into the Stone and listen to its words with new eyes and ears. Is this a new religion as first suggested by the Chinese Christian convert who gazed upon its inscriptions? Was it written by Christian believers who were Chinese and had developed their own interpretation and traditions while honoring their Syriac origins? They called themselves Jingjio. Did they create a native culture of Christianity in China?

The more I have listen to this stone the more certain I am that the music and message of the stone reveals a melody that is not Nestorian but Oriental and Chinese.

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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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