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The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith

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A book by Mark A. Noll

"Christians around the world rely on intellectual leaders such as Mark Noll to synthesize, challenge and propose. This book synthesizes the rising literature on global Christianity, challenges received conceptions about the American role and proposes … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Mark A. Noll
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: Intervarsity Press
1 review about The New Shape of World Christianity: How...

The New Shape of World Christianity

  • Jul 9, 2009
The Christian church is not American, demographically speaking. More broadly, it is not western. It may have been predominantly western at the beginning of the twentieth century, but at the beginning of the twenty-first, it no longer is. As Dana Robert wrote in April 2000: "The typical late twentieth-century Christian was no longer a European man but a Latin American or African woman."

This southward demographic shift requires a new historiography of Christianity, one less focused on events and personalities in North America and Europe and one more focused on events and personalities in South America, Asia, and Africa. Writers--both western (Philip Jenkins, Andrew Walls) and southern (Ogbu Kalu, Lamin Sanneh--have already begun to do so.

But there is a connection between the Christian church in the west and the south: missionaries from the former (especially Britain and America) performed their work among indigenous people in the latter. How should these missionaries' influence be characterized? More specifically, as American historian Mark Noll asks in The New Shape of World Christianity, "What...has been the American role in creating the new shape of world Christianity and what is now the relation of American Christianity to world Christianity?"

Noll suggests three possible answers: "First is to assume that Americans control events." On this reading, Christian mission is a form of cultural imperialism. "A second view is to affirm that a strong relationship does exist between Christianity in the United States and Christianity around the world, but also that this relationship is defined much more loosely than simply active American cause and passive global effect." On this view, it is better to speak of American "influence" than American "manipulation." Noll goes on to identify a third option: "newer expressions of Christianity around the world, despite many differences with each other, often do share many characteristics of Christianity in the United States" because of "shared historical experience." Noll's answer to the question of America's role in the new shape of world Christianity is a combination of the second and third answers.

Building on the insights of Andrew Walls, Noll argues that American Christianity in the nineteenth century was characterized by two major developments: "the successful adaptation of traditional European Christianity to the liberal social environment of the United States" and "the emergence of the voluntary society as the key vehicle for Protestant missionary activity." European Christianity was implicated in Christendom, the explicit, legal, and formal alliance of throne and altar. The American churches, in all their riotous variety, were disestablished, even if culturally pervasive and influential. As voluntary institutions, they were quite entrepreneurial about winning converts to their way of thinking and living.

Broadly speaking, social conditions in the global south were more similar to frontier America than European Christendom, and the seeds of a voluntary, entrepreneurial religion grew better in that soil, just as it had on the American frontier. Of course, there are tremendous social differences as well. The settlers of the American frontier were of European stock and therefore familiar with the Christian message, whereas the indigenous people of the global south were converts from other religions. But one should not let these differences obscure the power of Noll's insight into the similarities.

One of the benefits of Noll's thesis is that it allows for the integrity of American missionaries while at the same time upholding the agency of indigenous peoples. In other words, American missionaries are not necessarily cultural imperialists, and indigenous peoples are not necessarily passive victims of American hegemony. Rather, American--and, more broadly, western--missionaries brought the gospel to indigenous peoples who, in turn, shaped Christian faith and practice into a culturally pertinent form.

In chapter 6, Noll tests his theory against sociological and anthropological criticisms of American Christian missions. Chapters 8 and 9 further test the thesis against two specific test cases: the rise of Protestantism in Korean and the East African Revival of the mid-twentieth century. I think his thesis withstands scrutiny well. Sociological and anthropological criticisms are shown to be biased and historically ill-founded in many cases, while the Korean and East African revivals are shown to be indigenously directed affairs.

This does not mean that Noll is above criticizing American missionaries or the American shape of Christianity. Instead of either simple affirmation or critique, Noll presents an ambivalent portrait of American Christianity and American missionaries. The American practice of Christianity--characterized by individualism, revivalism, cultural dominance, and cultural adaptivity--has both strengths and weaknesses. American individualism, for example, focuses the believer on God's personal love for him. At the same time, however, it hinders the same believer from seeing the social form and implications of the faith.

In the end, perhaps the greatest similarity between American Christianity and the new shape of world Christianity comes down to this: Like Jesus Christ, the gospel comes to us in the flesh of a particular culture. The message of God's redeeming power is transcultural but it must be expressed in the form of a specific culture, beginning with its language. Nineteenth century Americans did this with their inherited European faith--indigenizing it, Americanizing it. Christians in the global south are doing the same today. To the extent that Christianity in the global south has been shaped by American Christianity, it is not so much through the direct influence of American missionaries as through the similar social context of freedom from the constraints of Christendom, which aligned altar and throne and obstructed the development of indigenous Christianities.

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