There is a tendency to speak of Christianity as being a "Western" religion, by which most people think of Christianity as a European religion. The facThere is a tendency to speak of Christianity as being a "Western" religion, by which most people think of Christianity as a European religion. The fact is, Christianity, like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and a number of other major religions, is in fact an Asian-born religion. Its roots are in Asia and from there it spread south, east, west, and yes, north in the two millennia since its birth in the first century of the common era. Telling the story of Christianity is not easy for it is a diverse religion, spread across the globe. Christianity has ebbed and flowed in different parts of the world, its fortunes often related to other factors including migration, nationalism, as well as nature itself.
As a Church historian I've read my share of histories. Some are long and detailed, others relatively brief. Each has its place and purpose, and such is the case with Derek Cooper's Introduction to World Christian History. Cooper introduces us to world Christianity in a matter of 244 pages. He covers a lot of ground, both chronologically and geographically. He rarely stops in one place for long. Sometimes he chooses to emphasize one particular country to illustrate what is happening in a broader region. For the most part he seems to cover the topics at hand with diligence and forthrightness. He does make an occasional mistake or at least it would seem to me that a mistake had been made (one glaring example concerns the suggestion that explorer Henry Stanley was a disciple of David Livingstone).
What makes this book intriguing and somewhat unique is the way in which he lays out his study. He organizes the book according to the United Nations Geoscheme, exploring the place of Christianity as it exists in each subregion. To give an example, the UN Geoscheme organizes Asia according to five subregions: Central, Eastern, Southern, Southeastern, and Western.
With this as the geographical scheme, the book is divided into three chronological parts. Part one covers Christianity from its birth in the first century to the seventh century. During this period Christianity existed in Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was, of course, in the seventh century that Islam began to make its push across Asia and northern Africa, overtaking what had previously been Christian strongholds. So we watch as Christianity moves outward, finding its earliest successes in Asia, including modern Turkey, and moving across northern Africa, with Egypt becoming a major success. While Cooper doesn't focus on theology, he does note that early Christianity was diverse, and often divided theologically, especially regard to the nature of Christ.
Part two again focuses on the presence of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Europe. It is in this period that runs from the eighth through the fourteenth centuries that Christianity makes its great inroads into Europe, even as it begins its long decline in Asia and Africa. Even as the former centers of Christianity, including the Holy Land, came under Islamic rule, culminating in the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, Christianity came to dominate Europe, largely under Catholic influence, through the conversion of Germanic peoples, especially the Franks, which culminated in the crowning of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 CE. While the Byzantine Empire pulled back during the Middle Ages, Orthodoxy spread north and east, finally taking root in Russia.
There is a tendency to think of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century as being the great divide within the Christian world, and it was a major fissure, but if we're thinking on a global scale, as Cooper wants to do, then it's not the Reformation that is the great chronological marker, it is the beginnings in the fifteenth century of the age of exploration. As Cooper reminds us, Protestantism remained a largely European and then North American phenomena long after Christianity was being spread by Roman Catholics in Africa, Latin America, North America, Asia, including India, and Oceania, long before Protestant missionaries began to go out in the eighteenth century.
For the most part Cooper, who appears to be an evangelical, remains true to his promise not to "arbitrate among rival articulations of what it means to be a Christian" (p. 19). He doesn't place a grid of orthodoxy on the various claimants to Christianity. If you make the claim, he counts you. In doing so, he allows for us to explore the global expansion of Christianity in all its forms. For many Christians reading this book will introduce them to forms of Christianity that have great ancient lineages, and have existed in places like Iraq and India and Ethiopia from almost the beginnings of the Church. It will also be helpful in letting go of the idea that Christianity is a European/American religion.
This last recognition is important because it is becoming clear that even as Christianity is in decline in Western Europe and North America, it is booming in the Global South and in Asia. Failure recognize this reversal of fortune will diminish our own sense of who we are as a Christian community. In many ways, the Christian community is returning to its roots.
Of course a book this brief cannot cover every region in the same way. I wish more had been said about the spread of Christianity in Oceania. In regards to Southeastern Asia, while the Philippines is certainly in need of exploration, I was hoping for something to be said about Christian presence in Vietnam.
All in all, I believe this book will serve nicely as an introduction to world Christianity, as its title indicates!
There have been in recent centuries attempts to portray Christianity as being the product of it's Greco-Roman environment. Efforts were made to demonsThere have been in recent centuries attempts to portray Christianity as being the product of it's Greco-Roman environment. Efforts were made to demonstrate the influence of various mystery cults on Christianity, leaving the question of whether Christianity was in any way unique and distinctive. Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, offers a detailed description of the ways in which early Christianity was quite distinctive. He offers this book as a response to what he calls our "cultural amnesia." We have forgotten both the distinctiveness of early Christianity and the mark left on our cultural mindset by this distinctive faith (p. 187).
When we think religion, we usually have in mind beliefs and practices, ethical concerns, laws, and rituals. We place Christianity and other traditions into this framework, so as to compare and contrast. Hurtado argues that our definition of religion differs greatly from the ancient world's, and that our modern definition largely stems from the emergence and growth of Christianity within the Roman world. Religion in the ancient Roman world was largely concerned with ritual, not doctrine or ethics. The one religion that has the same markers as Christianity is Judaism, but Judaism was itself a different kind of faith tradition. It was distinctive, but those distinctives were linked to ethnicity, whereas the differences expressed by Christianity were trans-ethnic.
In Hurtado's mind the first three centuries of Christianity's existence were formative. The characteristics that mark Christianity were forged in the context of a rather hostile context. Indeed, according to Hurtado, "in that ancient Roman setting, Christianity was perceived by many as irreligious, impious, and unacceptable, a threats to social order" (p. x). We may not perceive Christianity in this way, but its early compatriots did.
Why was Christianity deemed strange and dangerous? Could it be that their sense of exclusive devotion to the God revealed in Jesus put them at odds with their culture? This strangeness led to both social consequences and the possibility of physical death. They wee considered odd, first and foremost, because they refused to venerate or honor the gods of Rome and of the home. Rome was rather pluralistic, but it did require giving honor to the gods. It was an act of allegiance. The fact that Jews didn't have to give religious allegiance was due to the belief their stubbornness in resisting civic religion was an ethnic rooted reality. The same couldn't be said of Christianity, which quickly crossed ethnic boundaries.
Hurtado offers a historical look at these important questions about the foundational moments of Christianity. He notes the diversity of expression, but focuses on the proto-orthodoxy that was emerging during this era and became the leading theological vision by the fourth century.
He begins the journey with a detailed description of the way in which Christianity was perceived and understood by its non-Christian neighbors, both Jewish and Pagan. The Pagan critiques are the most interesting because they seem strange to ears. To think of Christianity, as Pliny suggested, being "perverse superstition" seems beyond comprehension. By the second century Christianity had begun to be noticed. It was deemed unsophisticated and dangerous, and needing a response as seen in the responses of people like Celsus.
In chapter two Hurtado begins to explore more fully the distinctives. He shows how Christianity is a new kind of faith. In the ancient world no distinction was made between devotion to the gods and the rest of life. Religion was simply an expression of one's culture, but for Christians it was much more. They made a distinction between culture and nation and the God revealed in Jesus. Religion was about ritual for the Romans, while little thought was given to beliefs. In a world full of gods, with temples and rituals, to worship one God who lacked idols was incomprehensible. Now there were growing numbers of trans-ethnic religions emerging at the time, including the Mithraism, which was popular among the soldiers, and the cult of Isis, which had spread widely from Egypt. But neither of these religions was exclusive. Thus, Christians were accused of atheism. it had some of the markings of Judaism, but it transcended them.
With the exception of Judaism, which had a strong ethnic identity, ancient religions were non-exclusive. Worshiping thee emperor was pledging allegiance to the ruler. To say no to this call to worship was to say no to the government. While voluntary religions were emerging, they were non-exclusive. With Christianity ethnicity and religious identity were separated, the same was true of political loyalty. As Hurtado notes: "Christians refused to honor the gods on which Roman rulers claimed to base their political authority; but Christians affirmed, nevertheless, a readiness to respect pagan rulers, pay taxes, and in other ways be good citizens" (p. 103). What Christians wanted, interestingly enough, was religious freedom. As Tertullian argued, worship can't be coerced, and one could be a good citizen without the religious test. In this Christianity was revolutionary.
From identity we move to the primacy of word in Christianity. Christianity more than any other religion other than Judaism was bookish. There is a uniqueness in Christianity's efforts to emphasize "reading, writing, copying, and dissemination of texts" (p. 105). He notes that one needn't have a fully literate community to be committed to the written word. A community needed but one person who could read the word to the people. Hurtado explores in some depth the role of reading and dissemination of texts, including the ongoing canonization process that standardized texts, beginning with the Pauline letters and then the Gospels in the second century. But it wasn't just the texts that came to be seen as scripture that were shared. Numerous works were produced during the second century and beyond. Paul's letters were unique in their length. No ancient letters were as lengthy as Paul's. Even Philemon is relatively large in comparison to other Roman letters. Then there is the codex. At a time when the scroll was the preferred form of book, Christians embraced the codex, which stands close to the modern book. Thus, Christianity was a text-oriented faith.
Christianity was unique as well in its ethical emphasis. Granted Judaism did the same, but it rarely sought to extend its practices to others. Christianity on the other hand made ethics central to their faith, and sought to expand influence to the rest of the community. In this Christianity was closer to the philosophical schools than religion. Among the practices that Christians opposed was the Roman practice of infant exposure. Romans seemed have few qualms about this, but Christians rescued infants and opposed the practice. They also opposed gladiatorial spectacles. Christians tried to fit in where they could, seeking to be good citizens, but they also believed that faith had behavioral expectations. Somewhat uniquely sexual expectations were applied to males as well as females.
Christianity, as Hurtado argues throughout, was distinctive in its attitude to the religious emphasis of the day, in its exclusiveness and transethnic nature. It was distinctive in its call for religious liberty, as well as its bookishness. It was unique in the way it emphasized behaviorial expectations. There are similarities, for instance, to household codes, but even these were modified.
I'm not a biblical scholar or a historian of early Christianity. Yes, I've studied the eras and have some acquaintance, but not expertise. Nonetheless, I believe that Hurtado has offered us a compelling case for the unique nature of early Christianity. I found his emphasis on the way in which contemporary understandings of religion, especially the separation of religion from culture, have their roots in this early period. I believe that book, which is very accessible to the non-specialist, will be very helpful in understanding the roots of Christianity and how we might live out our faith in the contemporary context, so that one might give allegiance to Jesus and be a good citizen (without giving ultimate allegiance to the state). This is a needed challenge to our cultural amnesia, and thus I highly recommend it.
I became a fan of the work of theologian Deanna Thompson after reading her wonderful theological commentary on Deuteronomy. I h ave since had the oppoI became a fan of the work of theologian Deanna Thompson after reading her wonderful theological commentary on Deuteronomy. I h ave since had the opportunity to get to know Deanna as a friend. This is the third book of hers that I've read, and I must say it is quite good.
In this book she offers us a feminist theology of the cross in conversation with both feminist theologians and Martin Luther. At a time when the cross has become a scandal for many progressive Christians, but most especially feminist theologians, Deanna crosses the divide and offers us a means of reconnecting with the cross. She is very aware of the problems attendant to Luther's actions and statements, but she also finds a conversation partner that opens up new vistas for theological exploration.
In seeking to be a feminist theologian of the cross, in conversation with Luther, she reminds us of the dangers of embracing a theology of glory. She reminds as she does in a section exploring the relationship of Sarah and Hagar how one can be both victim and oppressor, thus in need of redemption. In addition, drawing from Luther's vision the bridegroom relationship that redeems the bride, a vision that is very sexist, she points us to a theology of friendship where in Jesus is the friend who lays down his life for the friend as a way of understanding the cross as redemptive.
Being that I myself wish to reengage the cross and its meaning for the Christian faith, I am thankful for Deanna's message, and look forward to more! If you're struggling with the theology of the cross, I recommend this book very highly!!...more
The twentieth century was dubbed the "Christian Century." A journal bearing that name became one of the leading voices in the North American context (The twentieth century was dubbed the "Christian Century." A journal bearing that name became one of the leading voices in the North American context (and continues to be an important journal). Even as Western colonial expansion was reaching its height, Christian missionary efforts from the United States and Europe were expanding the footprint of Christianity across the world. Mission leaders like John R. Mott declared that the world would be converted in their generation. As time has passed Christianity has expanded, but its power and influence in the lands that sent the missionaries at the turn of the twentieth century has declined markedly, even as Christianity has exploded in the global south and Asia. What is the story of this amazing reversal of fortunes and transformation of global Christianity?
Missiologist and historian Scott Sunquist, currently dean of the School of Intercultural Studies and professor of World Christianity at my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, has undertaken the important task of chronicling the story of 20th century Christianity. It is important to note that no history is completely objective. There are "facts" and then there is "interpretation." When it comes to the field of church history, one's theological predisposition likely will color the interpretation. Such is the case here. Sunquist is an evangelical committed to expanding the Christian footprint through evangelism. While he is quite aware of the downside of the mission movement, especially as it was married to colonial expansion and conquest, he nonetheless believes that the church's vitality is seen in its commitment to conversionary mission. That being said, Sunquist offers us a most helpful and thorough exploration of the expansion of Christianity in the 20th century.
Sunquist's focus is on the transformation of the Christian faith as it moved out of its traditional stronghold to the broader world. Whereas nearly 80% of Christians in 1900 lived in Europe and North America, only about 35% of the Christian community is to be found in the old homeland. With this in mind, Sunquist looks at the century through five lenses, but first he updates us on how the Christianity present in 1900 came to be. Then he moves on to the first of five lenses. These lenses are: 1) the most influential persons in Christianity; 2) impact of political changes of 20th century on Christianity; 3) exploration of the story of four confessional families -- Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Spiritual; 4) impact of migration on Christianity; 5) impact of Christian encounters with world religions.
Each of the lenses is directed toward the story, and an interpretation is made. Reading these chapters one discovers the story is very complicated. Colonialism had an important influence, as did major political changes. For instance, the rise of communism had significant impact on Russian Orthodoxy, which experienced significant decline. Migration on the other hand helped spread Christianity into new places. It also led to a reconfiguration of specific regions and the Christian presence. For instance, Sunquist notes in several places the impact of the formation of Israel on the Christian community in the Middle East. Consider Lebanon, which was predominantly Christian at the time of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but its majority was diluted over time in part due to migration of Christians out of Lebanon, but also of displaced Palestinians moving into Lebanon. I appreciate the honest appraisal of the impact of Israel's presence on the region, including its impact on the Christian communities in the region.
Sunquist's evangelicalism is most present, it would seem to me, in his appraisal of the effect of the encounter with world religions. Prior to the late 19th century, most Christians assumed that persons of other faiths should be converted to Christianity. But things changed at the turn of the century. The encounter with other faiths led some in the church to rethink the mission task. Thus, the movement was divided into two groups. Those who believed that Hindus and Muslims needn't be converted, for they seek God in their own way, were on one side of the debate. On the other, were those who continued to believe in the importance of conversion. Sunquist finds himself on the side of the latter. He appreciates the importance of the encounter but believes that by giving up the missionary task, a significant portion of the Christian community in the west lost its sense of purpose and contributed greatly to its decline.
Sunquist points out that the overall percentage of the world's population that is Christian has remained relatively stable over the last century. What that stability hides is the complete transformation of the Christian world. No longer is it a Euro-American religion. It is now a global faith that has its greatest expansion and vitality in places like Korea and Africa, places there were hardly touched at the beginning of the 20th century.
This is a fascinating story that is told quite well by the author. He has a particular perspective that won't be shared by all readers. Nonetheless, I think it's a worthwhile read, no matter what your perspective might be. ...more
I am the author of this book in which I share my reflections and visions for the denomination I serve as a pastor. In a time when questions are beingI am the author of this book in which I share my reflections and visions for the denomination I serve as a pastor. In a time when questions are being asked of the identity of churches, I offer this as a means of furthering the conversation.
The title conveys what I consider to be the two key elements of the Disciples. We are a people who highly value our freedom (we were born on the frontier). But, to stay together we must find unity -- and the means is through affirming our covenant relationship. ...more