Friday, June 05, 2009
World Christianity: Ancient and Modern
One my doctoral padawans, Jason Hood, visited Dingwall and recommend to me Philip Jenkin's book The Lost History of Christianity (Lion). I picked up a copy in Australia last week and read it on the plane on the way home. One word for it: Brilliant! This is one of those "drop what you're reading and read this" moments. Too much of Church History has focused on the Latin Church and its Protestant offshoot. There is usually some footnote to the Greek church of the east, but virtually nothing about the Syriac church of the far-east. While Charlemagne was trying to unify Europe, bishop Timothy the catholicos of the east, was establishing dioceses from India to China. I was amazed to learn that newsworthy places like Basra, Mosul, Tikrit were once thriving Christian centres prior to the coming of Islam. Two quotes stand out for me:
First of all, the idea that orthodox groups with the political support of the Roman empire, supressed heterodox Christian groups is a myth because: "The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. Even as early as the second century, the Diatessaron assumes four, and only four, authentic Gospels. Throughout the Middle Ages, neither Nestorians nor Jacobites were under any coercion from the Roman/Byzantine Empie or church, and had they wished, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospels or scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to the canon, they chose to prune. The Syriac Bible omits several books that are included in the West (2 Peter and 3 John, Jude, and the book of Revelation). Scholars like Isho'dad wanted to carry the purge further, and did not feel that any of the Catholic Epistles could seriously claim apostolic authorship. The only extraneous text that a few authorities wishes to include was the Diatessaron itself. The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed for papal or imperial control, make nonsense of claims that church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins" (p. 88).
Second, Jenkins points out that the churches which survived persecution are those that successfully adapted to their changing environment. But this is double edged sword as he writes: "Although a comparable linguistic gulf does not separte modern Western churches from the secular world, Christians still face the dilemma of speaking the languages of power, of presenting their ideas in the conceptual framework of modern physics and biology, of social and behavioral science. To take one example, when churches view sin as dysfunction, an issue for therapy rather than prayer, Christians are indeed able to participate in national discourse, but they do not necessarily have anything to offer that is distinctive. Nor is there any obvious reason why believers should retain their attachment to a religious body that in its language and thought differs not at all from the secular mainstream. Too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, oftne, disappearance" (p. 245).
What is most provocative about this book, is that it asks ask, Why do churches sometimes become extinct in certain places? There is no story of a triumphant advance of the church over all the territory that it meets. In reality, the history of the church includes advances, triumphs, set backs, dark times, and losses. The blood of the marytrs has often been the seed of the church, but at other times it has meant the end of the church when the last martyr falls. Jenkins urges us to create a theology of extinction so as to explain why the church (perhaps like the UK in 50 years) becomes extinct. He hints that being a persecuted minority is perhaps (as Anabaptists argue) the biblical norm. What is more, over time, God raises up the church in certain places as he sees fit. Did anyone think a hundred years ago that there would be more Anglicans in Nigeria than the UK or more Christians in China than people in the South Pacific?
A second book to consider is Mark Noll's The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (IVP) which shows the influence of America on Christianity around the world. For Noll, American Christianity is important because the world is coming to look more and more like America. American patterns provide insights for what is/can/will happen in the rest of the world. The book ends with a commentary on Rev. 21.22-24/Isa. 66.18-21: "The vision of divine fulfillment picks up Isaiah's theme about the kings of the earth even as it speaks graphically about the universal outreach of the gospel. The passage also hints at the sanctification of the world's diverse cultures. The kings - or, we might expand, the cultures of the world - with their glory will enter the heavenly city. For Americans who read this stirring account of the fulfillment to which the whole world points, it should be enough to imagine that one of those 'kings' will come from the White House, but only one" (p. 200).