the new shape of world christianity

It took me awhile to get a hang of the direction in which Mark Noll was heading in his latest book, The New Shape of World Christianity (IVP, 2009).

I know the guy is an elite historian but every now and then he seemed to be going down the same path as Jerry Falwell did in a chapel at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School when I was a student there. Falwell asserted that the success of God's mission in the world is dependent on the USA remaining the dominant global power. While Noll is nowhere near as American-dependent as Falwell, he certainly is more American-centered in his thesis than I would have thought was warranted.

The opening sentence of the final "Reflections" chapter troubled me: "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)." Gee - that is a big call to make! However let me quickly add that he is not saying that 'correlation is causation' but that "understanding American patterns provides insight into what has been happening elsewhere in the world (189)."

And yes, we see this here in the New Zealand church. I valued the places where Noll listed these 'American patterns'. For example, in asserting that "American Christianity is unmistakably American as well as Christian (120)" he describes the 'preferences' we find there:

1. individual self-fashioning over communal identification
2. a language of choice and personal freedom alongside a language of given boundaries and personal responsibility
3. comfortable employment of commerce as opposed to cautious skepticism about commerce
4. a conception of religious organizations as voluntary bodies organised for action instead of inherited institutions for holding fast
5. an optimistic hope expressed in the creation of new institutions instead of a pessimistic skepticism about innovation
6. personal appropriation of sacred writings over inherited or hierarchial interpretation of those scriptures
7. a plastic, utilitarian attitude toward geography as opposed to a settled, geographically-determined sense of identity
8. a ready willingness to mingle different ethnic groups (in at least public settings and despite America's wretched black-white history) as opposed to strong convictions about ethnic purity
9. the innovations of the bourgeois middle classes instead of deference to traditional elities (120-121)

Add to these 'preferences' words like "conversionist, voluntarist, entrepreneurial" and a picture of American Christianity emerges - a picture that fueled the success of various missionary initiatives such as The Jesus Film, Wycliffe Bible Translators and New Tribes Mission - all of which Noll discusses in some length.

Some personal reflections:

1. 'Schooled' at an American boarding school in India (Woodstock) and 'seminaried' at an American seminary (TEDS), but based here in NZ ever since - I have often gone on and on about how we need to be more discerning in the way we utilise American resources (the Willowcreeks and the Saddlebacks, for example). Helpful though they are, they do come packaged in those 'preferences' above which themselves need to be submitted to strong biblical-theological critique.

2. While Noll plots the extent of American influence, he does have a high view of "local Christianities" (92). This comes up again and again.
For example, after the early missionary initiative, the pattern of development is the "local appropriation of Christianity by local agents for local reasons and in the context of local cultural realities" (78) ...
"The primary agency in recent movements of Christianization has not been the missionaries but the new converts themselves" (106) ... "once Christianity is rooted in someplace new, the faith itself also takes on something from that new place" (190) ... "the gospel that legitimates the particular upholds the universal" (191) ... "the gospel belongs to every one in every culture; it belongs to no one in any one culture in particular" (191) ...
"There is first contact with the gospel (often from missionaries), and there are very often early efforts at evangelization and at humanitarian aid (usually from missionaries). But the actual movement from Christian beachhead to functioning Christian community is almost always the work of local Christians" (195).

3. The book does not go far enough for me. I'd like to see not just an affirmation of the 'local' but an analysis of the way the 'local' is needed by the global-American. It is not enough to say that the 'local' exists. It has a voice which can speak and which can expose a blindspot or two. There needs to be an American humility in the face of these "local Christianities" - and this humility needs to extend to all those impacted greatly by the 'patterns' above (like the church in NZ). Sure - the book closes with a section on Partnership and the significance of the metaphor of the 'body of Christ' and the mutality it conveys - but this requires a book of its own as it is (for me, anyway) the most galvanizing and transformative mission truth there is today. For example, I wonder what the estimated 40-50,000 Indian cross-cutural missionaries at work within India could teach us?

4. I found the book more and more valuable the further I went into it. Chapter 8 on how "American Evangelicals View the World" in which Noll surveys the content of various magazines at specific points through the century. Chapter 9 on the similarities between American and Korean Christianity. Chapter 10 on The East African Revival - and that final Reflections chapter (11) which pulls things together so well.

nice chatting



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