Review: Paul Rusch in Postwar Japan

Gregory Mathias

Gregory Mathias is Professor of Global Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Gregory Mathias, "Review: Paul Rusch in Postwar Japan," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Andrew T. McDonald and Verlaine S McDonald. Paul Rusch in Postwar Japan: Evangelism, Rural Development, and the Battle against Communism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. 287pp. 978-0-8131-7607-9.

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The familiar yet tense relationship between politics and religion sits at the heart of Andrew and Verlaine McDonald’s work, Paul Rusch In Postwar Japan. Paul Rusch’s journey began in Louisville, Kentucky and ended in the shadow of Mt. Fuji on the grounds of Seisen-Ryo, the beloved American-style camp  that housed the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project (KEEP), his dream. Rusch’s gained his first exposure to Japan when he travelled there after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1925. From this important personal turning point, Rusch developed as a visionary with boundless energy, a reluctant missionary who battled his own humanity, and a deep lover of the Japanese people.

The book does not directly consider contemporary issues related to southern religion.  Nonetheless, Rusch’s life and work spanned important decades and engaged significant themes, including the role of the United States as a nation-builder in the post-WWII world and the Civil Rights era. Rusch blurred the lines between church and state in bringing the Japanese “Christian democracy” as the necessary foundation for physical and spiritual renewal and as a foil to the influences of Communism. He also called for “brotherhood” between people of different ethnicities as the battle for Civil Rights wracked the southern church halfway around the world. These complexities formed a backdrop against which the legacy of the Kentucky Episcopalian emerged in all of its color, and many of these concerns still resonate within southern religion.

Organized chronologically from Rusch’s birth in 1897 to his death in 1979, the book weaves together history, cultural narrative, and personal accounts. The authors do not shy away from Rusch’s many shortcomings—his naiveté, a dogged-dedication to western cultural Christianity and the cultural superiority of the United States, struggles with alcohol, and a tendency to use people in the pursuit of his grand vision. Rusch’s life and work raise perhaps more than answer questions about religion and politics, missionary methods, and the extent to which culture excuses biases and questionable practices. From Rusch’s story, those committed to cross-cultural ministry and humanitarian efforts can learn the difficulty of shedding cultural biases and the pitfalls of failing to do so. As the authors astutely point out, “Cultural ignorance may have contributed to Rusch’s boldness and audacity when it came to launching new venues, but it may have hobbled the staying power and adaptability of his work” (174). On a hopeful note, one finds in this story that the church as cultural change agent is borne most often on the backs of ordinary, imperfect people.

The final chapter marvelously grounds Rusch’s life and KEEP’s legacy in the themes of faith, help, and hope, providing common ground for a variety of readers. In the end, the authors accomplish their task of “explor[ing] Paul Rusch’s contributions to the shaping of a postwar Japan and how his legacy, the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project, continues to influence the world in the twenty-first century” (8).

The heightened interest in Japanese culture and history due to the country’s status as host to next year’s Olympics augments the timeliness of this volume. Students of history, pastors, and missions practitioners will benefit from this book. The ‘drunken Episcopalian” who left an uneven but lasting legacy offers a fascinating case study of the intersection between culture and Christianity.