Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 55-56.
The importance of the Christian tradition for the concerns, inquiries, and reflections constituting First Things (the magazine) and "first things" (the substantial reality) is patent. Without claiming an exclusive Christian monopoly over the resources necessary for laboring at the task, it still is the case that for much of the West the lessons, history, and counsels of Christianity remain the most fruitful place to begin an assessment of religion and public life. But not, as it now turns out, only for the West.
Since 1900, while the world’s population has multiplied 3.7 times, the number of identifiable Christians in Europe has increased by a factor of only 1.5 and in North America by a factor of 3.6. By contrast, over the same century the number of Christians in the Pacific islands has multiplied by 4.9, in Asia by 14.8, and in Africa an astounding 38.3 times. Where there were approximately nine million identifiable Christians in Africa in 1900, there are now over 330 million. On the basis of twentieth–century trends, the missiologist David Barrett projects that within thirty years, the number of Christians in Africa and Latin America each will outstrip the number in Europe, while the number of Christians in Africa will approach three times the number in North America.
Such a massive alteration in the geography of Christian adherence has created a burgeoning need to assess prospects of religion and public life from fresh angles—in Nairobi as well as New York, in Buenos Aires as well as Brussels, in Rio as well as Rome, in Hangchow, Hanoi, and Hong Kong as well as Hanover. One would think that such changes would have spawned a raft of thought–provoking books. Such, unfortunately, has not been the case.
To be sure, the number of authors writing seriously about the new demography of the Christian world has grown rapidly to include, among others, Gerald Anderson, Daniel Bays, Kwame Bediako, Edith Blumhofer, Paul Freston, Elizabeth Isichei, Adrian Hastings, Richard Madsen, David Martin, Samuel Moffett, Lesslie Newbigin, Karla Poewe, Lamin Sanneh, and Brian Stanley.
But no one has written with greater wisdom about what it means for the Western Christian religion to become the global Christian religion than Andrew F. Walls, emeritus director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non–Western World at the University of Edinburgh. In The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Walls presents in nineteen essays the distillation of a lifetime’s reflection on Christianity’s twentieth–century global transformation.
The book grows from Walls’ experience as a missionary educator in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, his extensive travel around the globe, and his extraordinarily multinational mix of graduate students. It is effortlessly learned, wondrously insightful, and sometimes even whimsically funny. When, for example, Walls arrived in Sierra Leone in the late 1950s, fresh from his theological training as a Scottish Presbyterian, there was no hesitation about setting the curriculum in ecclesiastical history: "The first year was for the early Church; the second, the Reformation; the third, Scotland—after all, what else is there?"
The process of finding out what else there was began almost immediately and yielded over time the reflections that make up this book. Walls’ themes are both historical and theological. By tracing the current movement of Christianity from the post–Enlightenment North to the animistic South, Walls can show how much the twentieth century has resembled the second century, when Christianity moved out from its Judaic origins into the Hellenistic Mediterranean, and also its seventh–and eighth–century experience of northward migration from that Greco–Roman world into the Germanic regions of Europe.
By reflecting on how questions once considered trivial by semitic Christians (like what to think of Jesus’ "natures") eventually had to be reckoned with, Walls suggests that believers in the West need to wrestle seriously with "new Christians" on such apparently tangential questions as whether long–dead ancestors may also be able to experience the joy of accepting the gospel. At the heart of the book, history and theology converge: Walls argues that precisely as Christianity is "translated" from culture to culture, it reveals its truest nature as a religion of the eternal Word "translated" into human flesh.
First Things began with the editorial assertion that "for the sake of both religion and public life, religion must be given priority." What Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History brings to such an agenda is the indispensable reminder that Christian believers should be at home everywhere (because of the Incarnation) and nowhere (because of their longing for the return of Christ). A religion invigorated by that kind of tension is exactly the kind needed to nourish public life—both where Christianity has long been resident and in the many places around the globe where it has only recently found a home.
Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College.