The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects GlobalFaith
Scholarship by and about the non-Western Christian world is proliferating in recent years, and the picture that is emerging bears remarkable similarities to Christianity in the West. While the immediate focus of this work by Mark A. Noll, distinguished author and professor of history at Notre Dame, is on Christianity in the United States, ultimately the purpose of this book is to consider the contemporary influence of North American Christianity globally.
Beginning in the late 1960s, historians and theologians suggested that decades of cultural and religious imperialism by North American missionaries provide the explanation for the emerging resemblances of global Christianity to North American Christianity. For example, Gustavo Gutierrez called for the “liberation of theology” from North American colonialists, Enrique Dussel reconstructed church history from a liberationist perspective, and Paulo Freire analyzed ways that Western educational approaches served as instruments of the oppressors to propagate their structures of control over the masses. For many, these earlier explanations continue to serve as a backdrop up to the present day. Even though many previous colonies now enjoy political sovereignty, a common view is that North American influence continues to prevail through paternalistic relationships and social, religious, and economic structures, thus propagating forms of Christianity that look very much like those of North America.
Noll challenges this common explanation, suggesting instead that these similarities are primarily because of emerging social, economic, and political similarities. He writes, “The main point of this book is that American Christianity is important for the world primarily because the world is coming more and more to look like America” (189). Noll characterizes this proposed shift in perspective by contrasting both positions succinctly as follows: “correlation is not causation” (189). This brief phrase encapsulates his main thesis, suggesting that “correlation” provides a better explanation for the similarities in global Christianity today.
This shift in perspective proposed by Noll to explain the similarities between North American Christianity and the new shape of world Christianity is both welcomed and long overdue. Given the wide-ranging changes in global realities in recent years, no longer is it appropriate to presume that similarities between North American Christianity and global Christianity are due primarily to direct influence. Perhaps a minority at home and abroad may still feel as though North American Christians are unduly influencing global Christianity. However, to a growing number of Christian believers, practitioners, and scholars world-wide, such perspectives would seem out of touch with contemporary realities. Today many Christian leaders around the world are highly trained and experienced, well aware of their own cultural context as well as of the idiosyncrasies of their North American partners, and willing to take responsibility for their own situations and choices. This book is nuanced in away to mediate between these older and newer histories and perspectives.
Noll addresses his primary thesis with a singular focus, even while his breadth of historical understanding and insightful analysis are evidenced throughout the work. Most readers will easily follow the book’s main ideas, although familiarity with post-Reformation European and American Christianity will enhance one’s understanding. This work is well illustrated, organized and articulated, and every chapter plays a strategic role in the main argument.
Noll introduces the general themes of the book in chapter 1, followed by a description of “The New Shape of World Christianity” in chapter 2. Chapter 3 discusses several key developments among evangelicals during the nineteenth century that set the stage for the changes that would transpire around the world during the twentieth century. The book’s main arguments are presented in chapters 4 through 7, in reference to this question: “What, in fact, has been the American role in creating the new shape of world Christianity and what is now the relation of American Christianity to world Christianity?” (67). Three possible explanations are examined (chapter 4), statistical and demographic realities are discussed (chapter 5), responses to various indictments against inappropriate influence of North American missionaries are critiqued (chapter 6), and the book’s main thesis is evaluated, namely that the American experience can serve as an instructive template in reference to the emergence of global Christianity (chapter 7).
The final section includes three case studies, one of evangelical Christianity in North America from 1900-2000, another regarding lessons that South Korean Christians can learn from this North American history, and a third of the East African Revival which began in the 1930s. The last chapter includes a restatement of the book’s main thesis, followed by reflections about (1) the enduring character and enduring attraction of the Christian faith, (2) the effects of American history on American conceptions of Christianity, (3) the place of Western missionaries, (4) the imperative of partnership, and (5) the purpose of the Gospel.
The way Noll conceptualizes Christendom in reference to North American Christianity is worth closer examination. In contrast with “the formal and legal intermingling of church and society that had defined European Christendom for more than a thousand years,” Noll says that North Americans “traded Christendom for voluntary Christianity” (12). It seems that this distinction between Christendom and voluntary Christianity is made to underscore the voluntary nature of North American Christianity. This primary theme of voluntarism runs throughout the book. Not until later in the work does Noll shed more light on his understanding of Christendom, by (1) stating that “the new American pattern did not abandon the Christendom ideal entirely” and then (2) citing various denominations “that continued to value their European roots” (112). Noll is even clearer regarding his understanding of Christendom in his discussion regarding the “American tendency, especially among evangelicals, to reduce true religion to conversion … and activistic social engagement,” when he states “that life and practice may have grown cold and the structures of Christendom might have fallen away, but the basic Christian orientation remained in place for a very longtime” (194). These comments about Christendom later in the book suggest that Noll may share similar views with other writers, including Philip Jenkins, Bryan Stone, and Craig Carter, regarding the socio-religious realities of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, even though Noll does not use the term “Christendom” as they do to refer to this “basic Christian orientation.”
The presuppositions undergirding this work are drawn to a significant degree from the ideas set forth primarily by Andrew Walls (1996) in his seminal work entitled The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith and also by Lamin Sanneh (1989), an African from Gambia, as articulated in Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. A core concept relates to both the particularity and the universality of the Gospel. Walls refers to the first concept as the “indigenizing principle” and the second as the “pilgrim principle.” This book is an extension and illustration of these ideas, applied to the expansion of Christianity from North America to other parts of the world.
The book’s conclusion provides a fitting and cogent illustration of these core ideas, stating that the Scriptures are “the book of God for all believers everywhere, as well as the book of God that speaks most directly to me in my particular time and place” (198). To illustrate, selected passages from the book of Isaiah are quoted regarding the Messiah and final comments underscore the relevance of these prophetic passages for global Christianity today.