Introducing World Christianity
Reviewed by George F. Pickens, Theology and Mission, Messiah College
Even though I have been a student of World Christianity since before that term was widely used, I confess that the idea of reviewing yet another volume which claimed to examine Christianity around the world was not initially appealing. For a myriad of reasons, interest in Christianity as a world religion has grown in the past decade, and consequently an enlarging and trendy corpus focusing on Christianity as a global faith has emerged. Even so, many of these studies are disappointing, either because of their stubbornly persistent Euro-centrism or their superficial and spotty characterizations of global Christianity. My initial reluctance quickly dissipated, however, when I began to examine Introducing World Christianity. A collection of seventeen chapters with an introduction and conclusion covering all the major geographical regions of the world, this is an exceptional volume which succeeds in reviewing Christianity on the terms of its diverse global contexts. Several features cause this book to stand out among the current surveys of World Christianity that are in print.
Within a body of literature dominated by statistics and mere descriptions, Introducing World Christianity avoids simplistic characterizations by focusing on the much-needed and rare qualitative interpretations of Christianity in its multiple global contexts. Indeed, the book’s purpose is to move beyond the most common paradigms for understanding Christianity’s place in the world—descriptive and historical—to address a simple question, “What difference has Christianity made in the world?” (3). This purpose guides the nineteen contributors, all established scholars representing multiple disciplines, as they analyze the broader implications of Christian presence in five global regions. While theological and historical details are not neglected, each chapter delves into the broader social, political, cultural, and economic issues that allow the reader to understand each region’s Christian experience with greater depth and complexity. This blending of theological and historical backgrounds with emic interpretations about the nature of Christian presence around the world is one of this volume’s most valuable contributions.
Such depth of social scientific analysis of World Christianity is much needed and overdue, and it is a second major contribution of Farhadian’s collection of essays. It is understandable and appropriate that the first studies of Christianity as a global faith were primarily written by theologians, missiologists, and scholars of religion.1 However, because “Christianity is movement—a flow, a traveling religion” (2) that serves as a channel for the sharing of ideas, technologies, money, institutions, and other cultural features, multiple methods must be utilized to gain a more complete understanding of Christian experiences in any particular time and place. The contributors to Introducing World Christianity employ the perspectives of theology, religious studies, history, sociology, and anthropology, and this multi-disciplinary approach enlarges our understanding of World Christianity as more than a set of quantifiable religious beliefs and practices. For example, the effects of centuries of persecution on local Christian communities are explored along with accompanying explanations as to why Christianity has historically survived in North Africa and the Middle East, yet also why the Faith has very recently declined (Chapter 1). An analysis of the relationship between prosperity theology and possible future mass disillusionment with Christianity in East Africa is included (Chapter 2), as is a fascinating interpretation of how Christianity transformed the “warrior spirit” (244) of Melanesia (Chapter 17). Such rich insights into the local complexities of Christianity around the world are offered in each chapter, and this exegesis of the holistic nature of global Christian faith could only be accessed through the use of multiple disciplinary analyses.
This qualitative analysis is possible because the contributors minimize their imposition of outside paradigms for interpreting Christianity in its varied global contexts, and this is another feature which sets this volume apart from many such studies. Rather than importing concepts, categories, or even terms that have historically been used to understand Christian experiences in the West, each chapter in Introducing World Christianity examines Christianity in a specific region on its own, local terms. The intention is to understand the distinctive features of Christian experience as they have been formed by multiple contexts, rather than even implying that the standard for all Christian faith is still of the West. For example, when students of World Christianity persist in interpreting non-western expressions of Christian faith (which are now the majority) by using terms and categories formed in the West such as “Christendom” or even “Catholic,” “Protestant,” “Orthodox,” or “Pentecostal,” they significantly limit their ability to understand the unique features of World Christianity. Such etic categories not only allow one to find what one is looking for even if it does not exist, but they also result in distortions which are inadequate to acknowledge the new and fresh variations of Christianity that are emerging all over the world. In order for global Christianity to be understood and appreciated, it must be studied on its own, local and distinctive terms; appropriate paradigms must be created or utilized. The contributors to Introducing World Christianity are to be applauded for this rare accomplishment.
Another contribution of Farhadian’s book is that it is one of the few studies of World Christianity that is truly global in its scope. While some surveys neglect or treat superficially certain geographical areas, Introducing World Christianity covers all five major regions of the world: Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific. The inclusion of Western Europe and North America is especially valuable, yet these regions are often neglected in studies of World Christianity. Many treatments of global Christianity are more accurately examinations of the Faith in the global South, and while Western Europe and North America are becoming more marginalized as minority Christian lands, still the West remains incredibly significant for Christianity in the world. Thus, the study of Christian presence in these post-Christian regions is a necessary component of the contemporary global story of Christianity. Additionally, each geographical region is covered in several chapters, so that Christian presence is analyzed in more specific sub-regions or nations. For example, a chapter is included on the often-neglected region of North Africa and the Middle East (Chapter 1), the dynamic story of contemporary Christianity in Eastern Europe is reviewed (Chapter 6), and a penetrating chapter on the globally significant church in South Korea is also included (Chapter 9). Another often-neglected region, The Pacific, is covered in four chapters, one focusing on Australia and New Zealand, and three chapters focusing on the three Pacific island regions: Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. Such global coverage is commendable and necessary for an accurate, balanced, and complete understanding of World Christianity.
Finally, the volume’s Introduction and Conclusion offer valuable contributions to our understanding of Christian processes in the contemporary world. The Introduction briefly summarizes the primary paradigms that have been used to describe World Christianity, but more importantly Farhadian details his own multi-disciplinary paradigm. His understanding of Christianity as a flow or movement is fresh and insightful.2 Likewise and in spite of its somewhat ambitious title, the Conclusion is substantial enough to stand on its own as a separate essay.3 Robert Woodberry’s analyses of the social consequences of Christian presence, coupled with his review of the nature of Christianity as it has globally interacted with other religions, are a fitting conclusion to an excellent study.
Perhaps it is the responsibility of a reviewer to find fault, but any flaws in this volume are topics for quibble rather than argument. For example, I would have preferred more detailed coverage of the incredible significance of Chinese Christianity. The very brief and superficial treatment (barely one page) of Christianity in China, arguably now the world’s largest Christian country, is surprising and regrettable. Even so, this volume is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding global Christian presence on its own terms. It is suitable for both undergraduate and graduate audiences, and the editor and contributors are to be commended for their efforts to produce a study that combines fresh insights with qualitative methodologies and a truly global scope.
Cite this article
- Andrew Walls, a Scottish missiologist, is widely considered to be the father of the study of World Christianity. For examples of his earlier work, see his collection of essays, many of them first published in the early 1980s, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996)
- For Christianity as a flow, movement, or traveling religion, Farhadian draws upon the work of Thomas A. Tweed in Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
- 0Robert D. Woodberry, “Conclusion: World Christianity: Its History, Spread, and Social Influence” in Introducing World Christianity (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 259-271.