Bridging the Local and the Global
Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became A World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase world religion? Historian Dana Robert insists that we think of Christianity as a world religion, too. After all, she insists, a third of the world's people are Christians, nearly two-thirds of all Christians live outside of Europe and North America, and Christians are more diverse in how they practice their faith than the adherents of any other great world religion. This book's main task is to explain how Christianity came to be that way. Since its very early days, Robert shows, Christianity crossed cultural boundaries. Indeed, she says, cross-cultural movement is basic to Christianity's nature. It lifts people's gaze beyond their local horizons; at the same time, it helps them fashion godly lives in a huge variety of cultural settings.
In four brief chapters, Robert shows how Christianity spread. Its followers moved quickly around the Mediterranean world and into the regions south and east, such as Arabia, Babylon (Iraq), Egypt, Ethiopia, and the lower Nile (today's Sudan). Churches proliferated in the Persian Empire, and missionaries went as far as India and China by the seventh century. By the fifth century Christianity was moving north into the tribal reaches of Gothic, Celtic, and Slavic Europe. While the rise of Islam in the seventh century brought stress and contraction to Christianity in Africa and the Middle East, Christian influence solidified in Europe.
When Europeans ventured in Asia, Africa, and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, and throughout the long era of European overseas trade and empire, Christian churches and missionaries came along. Protestants were slow to engage in cross-cultural missions at first, but when they did, their commitment to giving people the Bible and worship in their own language became the bedrock of missionary work.
Translation, in fact, is this book's basic idea for understanding what Christian mission is and does. Christianity became a world religion because it proved to be very translatable. Wherever the Bible was translated, local people heard the great biblical drama in their own words. What started as stories of a foreign god and others' faith became part of the local story too. The universal ideas of the Christian faith were clothed in local fabric.
This book is rich with stories of people on the edges of cross-cultural engagement and religious change. We hear of familiar saints such as Boniface, the Saxon missionary bishop on the German frontier, but also of Sorkaktani Beki, the Christian mother of the great Moghul emporer of China and Persia, Khubilai Khan. Robert wants readers to know who led the new Christian movements as well as the foreign missionaries who brought the new faith. So we meet Simon Kimbangu, who founded the largest independent Christian movement in central Africa, as well as the Scottish missionary explorer of that region, David Livingstone.
The second half of this short book features thematic chapters on politics, women, and conversion, and here the story becomes even more complex and fascinating. In the politics chapter, Robert focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries, when Western missions rode the wave of European trade, empire, and colonization into the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, and participated in the rapid social and cultural changes that came to many parts of the world. This age of European empire involved many cruel, selfish, and arrogant projects, but should missionaries simply be identified with it as cultural imperialists?
It was not that simple. Robert argues that missionaries had a "tortuous relationship with political and economic power." In the faith's earliest days under Roman rule, Christians were accused of upsetting the established order. But in more recent times, missionaries have frequently worked under the shield of imperial power. Robert helps the reader understand the charges against missionary activity, but she shows another side to the story as well. Missionaries have been a major humanitarian force over the past 400 years, leading the protest against brutal colonial policies in Latin America, campaigning against modern slavery, and protesting the confiscation of native lands on every continent. Hundreds of missionaries have been killed for meddling in such matters. Missionaries focus on bringing the gospel to new groups of people on the margins of society and very often end up identifying with them. So are missionaries crusaders for the poor or arrogant meddlers who "interfered in regional affairs, and tried to change the culture"? No doubt they will be remembered as both, Robert says.
A very dramatic chapter on women argues that "Christianity is a women's religion." Christian women worldwide outnumber Christian men two to one, and over the last two centuries the majority of missionaries have been women. Because they usually have not been eligible for ordination as priests or pastors, women missionaries "concentrated on lifestyles of service, … on the margins," beyond the centers of churchly authority and power. Western notions of cultural superiority factored into what they communicated, but women missionaries became major champions of women's wellbeing and social reform. They trained and sent out thousands of Bible women to give witness in villages across Asia and Africa. They opened thousands of orphanages, schools, and colleges, especially in places where education for women did not exist. They provided medical care in cultures where male physicians could not treat women. They fought for women's rights and brought war criminals to trial for rape. They campaigned against prostitution, child brides, and the killing of widows in India, and against foot binding in China; they opposed female genital mutilation in Africa; and they tried to stop "honor murders" of violated women in the Middle East. These lines of witness all followed naturally from the gospel of Jesus Christ. No wonder that the great majority of Christians are women.
The book concludes with accounts of two cross-cultural missionaries: Patrick, the Roman Briton missionary in fifth-century Ireland, and Bernard Mizeki, the Mozambican missionary to the Shona who was martyred in late 19th-century Rhodesia. Both have been revered as saints and have become powerful symbols of Christian peoplehood. Roberts concludes that they epitomize what missionaries do. They bridge the local and the global, the wisdom of traditional cultures and the way forward in Christ. That's the kind of faith that Christianity is, and that is why it has become a world religion.
This is a powerful and persuasive book. It does not flinch from the problems of missions, but it makes sure that readers see their tremendous power for good as well. It puts forward some of the most important new themes in missions and world Christian studies, but it does this without pretense or disrupting the narrative. It is an excellent choice for a class of students or a reading circle to gain a new understanding of missions and world Christianity.
Joel Carpenter is professor of history and director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College.