Review: From Jerusalem to Timbuktu

From Jerusalem to Timbuktu

From Jerusalem to TimbuktuBrian C. Stiller. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A book that surveys the global explosion of Christianity, identifying five drivers of growth and five other factors that weave through these drivers.

Brian C. Stiller serves as a global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella alliance of evangelical organizations serving 600 million evangelical Christians globally. This places him in a unique position to discuss trends in the expansion of global Christianity from Europe and North America to the global south over the last fifty years. This growth accounts for the title of his book. He writes,

” With the surprising growth of the Christian community globally in the past fifty years, the demographic weight of Christianity in Africa and Asia has pulled this global center south and west. Demographers now place the center of population density of Christians in Africa.

The metaphorical center of world Christianity has literally moved from Jerusalem to Timbuktu in the nation of Mali. This is not merely some clever title—it is a remarkable sign that points out what we otherwise might miss. Long a city name used as a metaphor for a far-away and unreachable place, today Timbuktu signifies this massive shift, as the location of the center represents a mighty upsurge in Christian faith around the shrinking globe”   (p. 11).

Stiller’s book is not one focused primarily on the statistical shift but rather the factors that he believes have driven this global growth. He identifies five drivers:

  1. An awakened appreciation and experience of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. He sees this as expressive of longings for a deeper life and experience of God as well as a reaction to modernist rationalism that precluded the power of God. While this led to renewal movements in Europe and North America, Pentecostal Christianity was a major factor in the growth of movements in the global South.
  2. Bible translation. The concerted effort to translate the Bible into every language not only has preserved these languages and the culture they reflect, empowering its people, but also unleashes the inherent power of scripture to lead people to Christ.
  3. Indigeneity. Increasingly, nationals have stopped relying on Western personnel and have shaped national movements reflecting their own culture, often resulting in explosive growth, as in the example of the East Africa Revival.
  4. Re-engaging the public square. Paralleling the experience of Western evangelicalism, there has been a movement from simply a focus on inner change and eternal life to the social implications of the gospel message. Examples include Kenya’s president Daniel Arap Moi, and a growing representation of evangelicals in Brazilian politics.
  5. A focus on wholeness–a vision of the gospel concerned with all of life, and one that looks at systemic issues as well as personal redemption, one that fosters, for example in Africa “virtuous cycles” that result in both personal and economic development.

Cross-hatching these five drivers, the author sees five other factors that he delineates in his final chapter. Three of these, he calls “enablers,” which include prayer movements, women in ministry, often on the frontiers of mission advance, and worship. The other two are issues, arising at times from global missions growth, and sometimes from other factors–immigration, including refugee immigration, and persecution (including the sobering statistic of over 5,000 martyrs from the “top ten” countries in 2014 alone, probably a conservative figure).

The section on worship seemed oddly out of place with this focus on indigenous and culturally-rooted ministry. The discussion here focuses on the contemporary Christian worship movement in its Western expressions. The absence of discussion of Latin, African, and Asian examples of worship music and practice was surprising to me.

Overall, this is a tremendously positive and encouraging account. Stiller mixes judicious use of data with numerous illustrative examples drawn from throughout the world. Most clearly, Stiller’s account, along with those of researchers like Philip Jenkins, makes the case that Christianity is a global faith no longer dominated by white westerners, a fact that many American evangelicals and others who discuss the evangelical movement are woefully unaware of. In particular, it seems that we may need to listen to the voices of Pentecostal movements and what they are learning about the Holy Spirit.

The epilogue of this work notes that the dominance of the West in global Christianity has shifted to the global South and that this challenges those of us in the West to exercise humility in learning from our fellow Christians in these countries. Stiller suggests that the situation in some of our “Rust Belt” communities may be more analogous to parts of Africa, and that ministry approaches developed in these countries may have an impact in our communities. I find myself asking what might we learn from Christian migrants from these countries. What may our congregation learn from the Ghanaian Pentecostal Church (in Columbus, Ohio!) who shares our building? Will we rejoice in the global growth of Christianity? Are there lessons we might learn about engaging the public square and the wholeness of the gospel from these movements? And will we move from being patrons to partners in the spread of Christianity?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No BordersMelani McAlister. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the international dimension of American evangelicalism, focusing particularly on Africa and the Middle East, the impact this American movement has had globally, and in turn ways global evangelicalism is engaging American evangelicalism.

American evangelicalism has been the subject of much historical, sociological and political analysis. Nearly all of this has been focused within the borders of the United States. Melani McAlister studies this movement through a different lens–the mission efforts of the past fifty years that have led to an international engagement, particularly as growing indigenous movements have challenged American evangelical beliefs and practices. The work includes extensive archival research, on the ground observation, and carefully chosen photographs that enhance the text. The focus of the author is on efforts in the Middle East and Africa, consistent with the author’s research area as an associate professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University.

The scope of this study is the last fifty years, going back to the 1960’s. After an introduction, the first section of the book is concerned with “networks,” the linkages of various key organizations within evangelicalism (e.g. the National Association of Evangelicals, InterVarsity, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others) both with one another, at conferences and in mission efforts. The narrative begins with the efforts of evangelicalism to reconcile its concern for peoples of color with the racial struggle coming to the surface in the 1960’s, then moves on to the Congo Crisis and encounters with Marxist movements and the intersection of religious and political concerns–would Congo become another Vietnam. At the same time, Israel captured the American imagination in its victory in the 1967 war, leading to travel to biblical sites and increasing linkages between religious hopes and American foreign policy. This section concludes with the largest networking encounter of the period, Lausanne ’74 and the growing tension between missional advance and social justice concerns from delegates in the developing world who were asserting their own voices increasingly.

Part Two is organized around body politics. It begins with Richard Wurmbrand displaying the wounds from his tortures before the U.S. Congress. Much of this section concerns persecution of evangelicals abroad and the intersection with concerns for religious liberty at home. McAlister traces the engagement with South African apartheid and how U.S. evangelicals dealt with the treatment of blacks and the witness of black Christian leaders. She explores the rising awareness of the Muslim World and the 10/40 Window heuristic for the unreached and resistant areas of the Muslim World. The section concludes with African American evangelicals efforts to address the crisis in South Sudan, and the redemption of people taken into slavery, an engagement of the heart that fails to get to the heart of the political turmoil in this troubled part of the world.

This leads naturally into Part Three, titled “Emotions.” McAlister explores what she calls “enchanted internationalism” that motivates much of evangelical mission. She chronicles the “short term missions” movement and the motivation of so many who “have a heart” for the lost, but often do not truly engage the cultural realities of the places they go, often supplanting national workers who may be as, or more capable. McAlister tells the complicated story of American engagement around HIV/AIDS, and homosexuality in Africa, where African evangelicals take a much harsher line than Americans like Rick Warren, and resent what they see as American cultural imperialism asserting itself into African churches. Again, much of the focus is South Sudan, as she joins Dick Robinson from Elmbrook Church as he visits believers scattered through the country and joins a Global Urban Trek of InterVarsity students in Egypt working with South Sudanese refugees as they confront both the enchantment of close identification one student had with Muslim Egyptians, and the struggle of a black participant who feels the racism of Egyptians while identifying more closely with the South Sudanese. All confront the expectations on Americans, the complexities of political and social realities, and the challenge of trying to live authentic Christian lives in difficult circumstances.

As someone who lives inside the world McAlister is studying and works in one of the organizations she investigates, I wondered how she would treat us. She is honest at one point in identifying herself as secular (on an Elmbrook Church mission project, one of the few organizations that permitted her to participate in such projects), and I thought fairly represented the facts. This was neither tribute nor hatchet job. It represents both noble efforts and questionable outlooks. She explores how global realities intersect with the American expressions of evangelicalism–how can we care for people of color around the world while tolerating racism at home? How do we hold mission in the Muslim world together with an increasing animus toward Muslims at home? How concerned are we for the religious liberties of the other as we advocate for our own? Furthermore, will we truly regard those who are fellow evangelicals around the world as equals and allow them to speak into our religious and political life as Americans? What happens when grateful recipients become equal partners? What happens when American evangelicals are a minority in a growing global movement?

I was deeply impressed with the incarnational approach of McAlister, who makes the effort to get on the inside that enables readers to see what American evangelicalism in its global efforts might look like to an outsider. I often read accounts of evangelicalism that are unrecognizable. The challenging aspect of this book is how recognizable it is, a mirror held up to us that shows all our features—and flaws.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Silence

silence

SilenceShusaku Endo. New York: Taplinger, 1999 (Link is to an in-print edition from a different publisher).

Summary: Endo’s classic novel set in seventeenth century Japan during the persecution of Christian missionaries and converts.

This summer, I reviewed Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beautya reflection on Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s Silence, the history of Christian mission in Japan, and the challenge in the present day of bringing brokenness and beauty together in a message of hope. Reading Fujimura, and learning of Martin Scorsese’s upcoming release over the Christmas holidays of a film version of Silence, I decided to re-read this work, which I first encountered about fifteen years ago.

The novel is set in seventeenth century Japan. After a period of successful expansion under Francis Xavier, the church and Christian missions came under a period of severe persecution that nearly eradicated Christianity in Japan. The novel begins with reports that one of the Portuguese leaders of the mission for over 20 years, Father Ferreira, has apostatized, renouncing his faith. Two priests of his order, Rodrigues and Garrpe determine to try to enter Japan through Macao, and attempt to discover the truth about Ferreira as well as continue the missionary work. They work with a man, Kichijiro, who seems to have inside knowledge of Christian communities, even though he claims not to be (any longer) a Christian. Both priests are eventually betrayed as are the communities within which they work, bringing Rodrigues face to face both with Inoue, the feared governor of Nagasaki, and the apostate Ferreira. While Rodrigues alternates between isolation and interviews with these two men, indigenous Christians (and Garrpe) are persecuted and martyred, some before Rodrigues eyes. He learns that to save them, he must apostatize, stepping on a fumi-e, an image of Christ.

The novel explores the question of denying or renouncing Christ. We see two missionaries, at great sacrifice and personal risk, make the perilous sea journey from Portugal to Japan, then living underground on the island, finally taking flight, and being captured. There is a period where they think they will avoid capture and experience great satisfaction in their work. Then we have their encounters with Kichijiro, who continues to turn up throughout the book, repeatedly apostatizing, and then coming to confess and seek absolution. He comments that at another time, he would have made an exemplary Christian. It poses the question for many of us as well, are we ‘good Christians’ simply because of the time in which we live? And for Rodrigues, the question comes whether to deny Christ to save the lives of others, or to remain faithful, and let them die martyrs.

Perhaps a more profound question is the silence of God through this persecution. Why does God neither save the Japanese people nor rescue Rodrigues? Silence recurs throughout the book and poses the question of what it means to believe and act in faith in the times of God’s silence.

Finally, the question is raised in the debates between Rodrigues and both Inoue and Ferreira as to the legitimacy of cross-cultural mission. Which is more powerful, the transcendent truth Rodrigues brings, or the “swamp” which Ferreira says is Japan, where Christian teaching is syncretistically compromised in the minds of even professing believers?

Rodrigues faces all of these challenges. What we are given in the novel are not “answers” to the challenges but an exploration of whether one can continue in faith, and what that might look like, in the face of these daunting challenges. Reading Endo leaves us, especially those of us who claim belief in Christ, with searching questions of what that means when we are stripped of the supports we often enjoy that buttress our faith.

From what I understand, Scorsese’s film has been over two decades in the making, and perhaps one he considers his most important. I can venture that it won’t be light fare, not one to go to if you are looking for light holiday entertainment. Reading Silence, perhaps with a group of friends, as I did, may prepare you to enter more deeply into the questions I am sure the film will raise. They are not easy questions, but then, do we want an “easy” faith?

Review: Overturning Tables

Overturning TablesOverturning Tables, Scott Bessenecker. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014

Summary: Scott Bessenecker argues that Western missions efforts are often captive to corporate culture and practices inconsistent with efforts to reach across cultures and to the marginal peoples outside the corporate world.

“Business as mission is not what I am addressing in this book; my concern is mission as business.”

Scott Bessenecker, a missions leader working in collegiate ministry, contends that Western missions efforts are shaped more by the corporate and business culture of the Western world, and often codified in government regulation of non-profits, than they are reflective of the values, and practices of Jesus and early Christians, as well as Christian missions arising from more marginalized peoples. He calls this the “Christian industrial complex.”

In “A Tale of Two Missions” he traces the growth of two divergent models in the early 1800s. One is the missions board, headed up by church and corporate leaders that raises large sums to send missionaries with modest but western accommodations (sometimes compounds). He contrasts this with the mission started by George Leile, a former slave who goes without board or church support to Jamaica to preach among slaves, supporting himself by his own labor.

In succeeding chapters he argues for a series of shifts that reflect what he believes is a move to a more gospel of the kingdom-centered approach to missions. He calls for movement from corporate to more local, indigenous efforts. He pleads for a more prophetically driven rather than finance and “profit” driven approach. He argues for a gospel not just centered on individual converts but also concerned for the cosmos. He argues for a move from an individually focused mission enterprise to communal solidarity on both the sending and receiving end where churches really send teams into mission, and those teams integrate with local leadership. He argues for ministries that reach the margins of societies, not the middle class mainstream that our corporate models direct us toward. He calls us away from metrics being the only measures of growth to the pursuit of flourishing people.

This is hard-hitting stuff. One of the things he touches on is that our Western organizations are set up within the constraints of 501(c)(3) status that affords tax exempt and tax deductible status but comes with certain requirements. Westerners who want to do mission in a different way may need to be willing to do this without these structures–finding alternate means of support, working under agencies in other countries, living at different standards.

The book is also inspiring because the rest of the world isn’t waiting for Christians in the West to change. Bessenecker tells a number of stories of efforts in the Majority World that are bringing the gospel to marginal peoples unreached by more traditional efforts. Nigerians are planting churches in Mexico, Koreans in Mongolia and much more.

There is a challenge in every culture that we try to fill old wineskins reflecting our cultural captivities with the new wine of the message of Jesus. Missions leaders need to consider the outcome of this story which is that the wineskins end up bursting, unless new wineskins are found. Bessenecker’s book gives us some notions of the shape and character of these new wineskins.