The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith
Dr. Alex Mekonnen reviews Mark Noll's book for the Denver Journal
Noll, Mark A. The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. Down Grove, IL
; 2009. 200 pp. Hardcover. $16.46. ISBN 978-0-8308-2847-0.
With the lenses of a good historian, Noll has given us the role American Christianity has played in the changes that occur in global Christianity today. Terms like “American experience”, “American Christianity”, “American Mission”, “American power”, etc., undoubtedly express the American role in the expansion of Christianity. As they attempted to spread the gospel, Americans, by large, decontextualized neither their theology nor their understanding of missions. Hence, Noll rightly described in his book”…How American Experience Reflects Global Faith.” Both American orthodoxy and orthopraxis were taught and reinforced as a golden standard in various parts of the world.
Church buildings, musical instruments, ministers’ attire, choir robes, hymns, names of converts, schools and curriculums had Americans’ religious, cultural, and economic trademark. The Christianity that addressed issues of life in the American cultural context was transplanted in different parts of the world. Unlike the transition of the Hebraic-Christianity from the Jewish culture to the Gentile world in the first century, which developed its own unique theological, cultural, and leadership identity in a short period of time, the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the majority world has been largely influenced by the dominance of American Christianity. As the result, we have Christian faith that is not well anchored on local theology. And to most of the churches in the majority world, up until recently, mission has been viewed as a Whiteman’s burden. The centralized American Christianity has been in control of the thoughts and activities of Christians in the majority world. The current decentralized global Christian movement is now shaking up the foundations and assumptions of American Christianity itself.
“The New Shape of World Christianity” describes the changes that have evolved in the postcolonial and neocolonial era. The political freedom had led to all kinds of emancipation from Western cultural captivity. The absence of missionary dominating leadership in the indigenous churches is one of them. As nationals took more roles in teaching, pastoring, evangelizing, and leading, the power of the gospel began to change lives. In addition, Christian converts transformed culture like yeast in dough. The passive, non-violent change by the majority world Christians has significant implications to our present and future situation. “The magnitude of recent change means that all believers, including those in the former Christian heartlands of Europe and North America, are faced with the prospect of reorientation. But the scale and pace of recent developments means that more than just history need to be reoriented; the awareness of where North American and European believers now fit with that history requires reassessment as well” (p. 23). For all Christians, this book can be an excellent tool for “reorientation” of the past, present, and future of global Christianity. Depending on the attitude, outlook, and personality of individual believers reading this book, Noll’s work can give them a rude awakening, shock, frustration, or hope.
As the individualism, cultural dominance, the interwoven of beliefs and practices, and capitalistic attitude of American evangelicalism give way to the cultural appropriations of Christianity by Asian, Latino, and African believers, global Christianity will be marked by theology brewed in a pot of suffering, rejection, poverty, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. Theology that has been developed rationally to address the issues of cognitive needs raised within the American cultural context will be broadened to encompass the effective, volitional, and evaluative aspect of people in their own culture. With full liberty, academic integrity, and accountability, the Scripture will be read, interpreted, and applied as it is seen and understood through the eyes and experiences of people from the majority world. Obviously, then, the Christ of America will have a different picture than the Christ of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
After centuries, again, missions will be from the poor to the rich, the powerless to the powerful, from unidirectional to multidirectional. As it often does, Christianity will demonstrate its adoptability in a culture where it finds home. Neither Americans nor the rest of the world would claim a monopoly of the Christian faith or consider being the custodian of the gospel. “The impression that Christianity in its essence is either European or American is, however, simply false. Christianity began as Jewish; before it was European, it was North African, Syrian, Egyptian and Indian. While in recent history it has indeed been American, it has also been Chilean, Albanian, Fijian and Chinese. The gospel belongs to every one in every culture; it belongs to no one in any one culture in particular” (p.191).
For ethnocentric Christians, who tend to believe their Christian life style or expression of faith and theology is a norm, they will find the change as a nemesis rather than enjoying the sovereign act of God who redeems people from different cultures, languages, and nationalities. Both to American and the majority world Christians, Noll’s book challenges us to see our faith as a result of a revelation comprehended because of the sheer grace and mercy of God. No human being became a follower of Christ because of superiority of culture or IQ. “All have sinned…” and all need grace to be saved. Emphasizing this fundamental biblical truth, Noll urges Christians toward a worthwhile global partnership. Quoting Lamin Sanneh, Noll reminds us to make a wise choice and decision, saying: “The fact that disadvantaged peoples and their cultures are buoyed by new waves of conversion has created alignments of global scope at the margins of power and privilege. The paradigm nature of realignment compels a fundamental stocktaking of Christianity’s frontier awakening, and an imperative of partnership with it. When opportunity knocks the wise will build bridges while the timorous build dams. It is a new day” (p. 197). Time will tell which theological institutions, mission agencies, churches, or denominations will build bridges or dams.
“The New Shape of World Christianity,” in a way, is a litmus test of our theological convictions and our understanding of our citizenship in God’s kingdom. By providing numerous theological, missiological, and historical insights, Noll’s book invites us to usher into a “new day.” Whether we choose to be a “bridge” or “dam,” Christianity will continue being a stranger and a permanent dweller in every culture it enters. It is a translatable revelation, not a closed dogma. Christianity was born under the Roman Empire from the Jewish society. Initially it was propagated in Aramaic then Greek, by Christ and the apostles whose mother tongue was Hebrew. The Great Commission encompasses the world, not only Jerusalem and Judea. Christianity cannot be chained down by cultural, linguistic, and geographical boundaries. It is a universal religion. It transcends every barrier it encounters. In his book, by affirming the inclusiveness and universality of our faith, Noll echoes the voice of the prophets and the apostles. Therefore, the “new day” is not really a new day. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise leading to the culmination of redemptive history.
Alemayehu Mekonnen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Missions