Christian biography is one of my go-to genres for encouragement and refreshment; my delight, with the Psalmist’s, lies with the Saints who are in the land (Ps 16:3). Consequently, I was excited when The Heavenly Man, the story of Brother Yun, was glowingly recommended to me. Perhaps here was another book to add to my list of greats—to place alongside Brother Andrew and Corrie Ten Boom on my shelf of Saints. However, as I worked my way through Yun’s story a strange cadre of emotions followed me; this was a book that left me… uncertain. Let me see if I can explain why.
Brother Yun is a Chinese house church leader, and The Heavenly Man is his story, told with the help of Paul Hattaway. It begins in Yun’s youth when he begins to earnestly pray for a bible. He prays fervently and faithfully—so fervently that his family begins to think him crazy. Then, one day, God miraculously provided a bible for Yun. He began to consume, then memorize the scriptures, and then was almost immediately called to preach. What follows (the remainder of his story) is an amazing account of miracles (among these were healings, miraculous transportation, provision, supernatural wisdom, and multiple divinely planned escapes from the authorities). In short, Yun travels, preaches, brings people to faith, spends time in prison, ministers to prisoners, is tortured, is released, is imprisoned more, is tortured more, and through it all is provided for by God on numerous occasions.
What I say next I want to say carefully: there is nothing wrong with Yun’s book; but there is also something not quite right about it. The cadre of strange emotions that traipsed through his story with me nagged again and again, raising small flags here and there, that something didn’t add up.
Let’s begin with what was right with Yun’s book. First, his life story, as one of commitment to Christ through suffering, is admirable. Yun’s faithfulness is a wonderful testimony to Christ’s goodness. Second, Yun is clear in that he gives glory to Christ for what has happened and not to himself. (Incidentally, Yun’s nickname, “Heavenly Man” isn’t about Yun’s holiness, but about a time when the authorities asked him where he was from. He responded, in order to protect his village, by saying he belonged to Heaven, and the nickname stuck.) Third, and this is terribly important, whenever Yun quoted scripture—whether to teach, to explain a situation, or in defense of his actions—he quoted them accurately. There was no proof texting, but healthy interpretation of the bible. Often, I find that if a teacher is faulty, those faults show up first in the teacher’s interpretation of scripture. So this factor—the accurate use of scripture—is one that gave, to my mind, the greatest credibility to Yun’s story.
But alongside theses goods came, every few pages or so, the red flags which left me uncertain. And the first red flag was Yun’s accounts of miracles. Now before I go on let me be clear—abundantly clear—that I believe in the power of the Spirit to do whatever He wants to do. That is, I have no problem believing in miracles—in transportation, in fasting, in healings, in knowledge, in miraculous escapes. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; he is the same one who acted in the past, he is the same who acts today. So my concerns about Yun’s book have precisely nothing to do with a prejudiced dismissal of the miraculous. My concerns are different, so let me try to explain them. When I read about Brother Andrew’s miraculously surviving Volkswagen, or his miraculous encounters at hostile borders, there are no questions in my mind. When I read about Corrie Ten Boom’s miraculous bottle of vitamins while in the concentration camp, I am undeterred. When I read about Jack Hayford getting words from the Lord and having visions I am unfazed. And when I read about John Wimber’s miraculous accounts I am encouraged. In each case one factor is consistent: the Spirit within me ratifies His own work. And this may seem unfairly subjective, but I have experienced the Spirit, know what He is like, and recognize the scent of His actions when I encounter them. That flavor was missing from Yun’s book—and that lack of confirmation troubled me deeply. Do I believe that he was miraculously transported from one location to another? I’m not sure. Do I believe that he fasted from food and water for more than 70 days? I’m not sure. Do I believe that he miraculously walked out of a maximum security prison in China? Again, I’m not sure.
Still, my uncertainty shouldn’t negate a book’s testimony—especially without evidence!—otherwise it would just be my word against his. But other elements combined to create a deeper suspicion. One of these other red flags was the frequent use of what I’ll call “everybody” language. Yun preaches, and “everybody” repents. Yun holds a meeting and “everybody” weeps. Yun shares the gospel in prison and “everybody” is enrapt. Now, this is, most likely, a blatant exaggeration. There’s always some Eutychus who nods off, even when the preaching is first-rate. And this idea of exaggeration began to lodge itself in my mind. It is easy, as a preacher, to exaggerate—to make the story bigger, the salvation more poignant, the miracle more miraculous. I began to wonder if Yun had fallen into that trap.
Reflecting on both the miracles and the ‘everybody’ language, a new thought occurred to me: Yun’s book closely resembles the book of Acts. And not just ‘closely resembles’, but appears to be written as a copy of the book of Acts. Yun is saved, set apart for a mission like Paul, is miraculously transported like Philip, is part of healings and radical community like the early church, escapes from the authorities like Paul, escapes from prison like Peter—Yun is even met at the door by a girl who forgets to open it for him after his escape! Through this all my inner eye began to narrow more and more as I scrutinized Yun’s book. Why does this book so closely parallel the story of Acts? Again, I must ask, is it possible for God to do these things? Certainly! But does this all add up?
In the end, I left Yun’s book feeling like I had been fed a story I wanted to believe, as if this was just what I wanted to hear about the underground Chinese church, its size, its miracles, its freshness, its closeness to the apostolic Church of Acts. And because of all this, I’m not sure Yun’s book was entirely truthful. Do I doubt that Yun has a ministry in China, possibly a highly effective one with the Spirit’s power? No. But I’m not sure that this book is an accurate picture of that ministry. And for that reason I don’t feel comfortable recommending it. Sadly, it won’t go on my shelf of saints. Does that mean I won’t be proved wrong? Far from it—nothing would please me more than to learn that I’ve made a misjudment about Yun and his story. But I don’t think that’s the case. And until that time, if you read his book, I suggest you read it with caution.