Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 2, no. 2 (August 2011)

playlist_add_check Review Article

Dana L. Robert. Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 232 pp. $26.95.

Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion is a global tour with a highly capable guide, Dana Robert. Robert’s competent handling of Christianity’s rise to behemoth status in world religion is impressive. Readers will find in this book a wonderful, lively resource coming out of years of teaching and reflection. Robert shows how vast and interconnected the Christian world is. She is as fluent with African health issues as with Celtic Christian history. Like few others, Robert comprehends Christianity’s breathtaking diversity, and its continued assimilation into new cultures. Reading this book affirms what most religion scholars are realizing: for the first time in human history, there is a religion that meets the criteria of being, truly, a world religion.

Robert begins by discussing Soviet Estonian teenagers “huddled in secret” listening to a smuggled copy of the British rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, and she ends with a story about her encounter with some Afrikaners reading Watchman Nee. How did white Dutch South Africans learn about Watchman Nee? They were introduced to his writings through a self-supporting Chinese-American missionary—and Watchman Nee enthusiast—who had moved to South Africa to spread the gospel. Robert then describes how these Afrikaners spread Nee’s ideas to Zimbabwe through some Shona people they met.

Such globalized, crisscrossing adventure is the nature of Christian mission today. Dana Robert understands the globalization of Christianity, how it has morphed, migrated, and enmeshed into new societies. She is an historian of Christianity with a missions emphasis. She is at her best discussing Africa—where she has considerable expertise. As Professor of World Christianity and the History of Mission at Boston University School of Theology, she also co-directs the Center for Global Christianity and Mission. Her research output is enormous, and she has emerged as one of the leading authorities on Christianity’s recent southern shift. Her publications have fluctuated back and forth from micro- to macro-history throughout a quarter-century of academic writing.

Perhaps most noticeably, Robert is gifted in bringing to light the contributions of women throughout Christian history. She argues in several places that “Christianity is a women’s religion” by about two to one; therefore women need to take a more prominent place in Christian history. She uses many facts and anecdotes to emphasize this revision. For example, women missionaries from the United States outnumbered male missionaries by two to one in 1900. She concentrates on the central role of mothers in the history of Christianity, and how women sustained the faith when families converted. She highlights careful efforts of women missionaries who understood that to influence a society one must reach the harems and Zenanas (women’s living quarters). Robert’s sensitivity towards women, wives, families, and marriage is an important corrective to macro-histories. No history of Christianity, or history of Christian missions, can legitimately allow the feminine and familial perspectives to escape notice. On the surface this seems obvious. Most histories, however, are about men. Robert has argued this for years, and in this book she delivers a balanced retelling.

This book is not a chronological, orderly account of how Christianity spread. It is more like a colorful tapestry made of extraordinary lives. Robert avoids the need to cleanly separate epochs in the history of Christianity. Her style is telling human stories. In traditional history books, scholars and clergy are mentioned in association with their greatest accomplishment. Robert however stays with the person, developing more meaningful context. For example, when writing about female circumcision, she shares the life work of Annalena Tonelli, an Italian lawyer who moved to Kenya in 1969 to teach in a high school. Using Tonelli’s life as an interpretive prism, Robert casts light on African nationalism, changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council, Catholic social action movements, HIV, clitoridectomy, and modern-day Christian martyrdom. She deftly weaves an historical narrative using biography as her loom. The lives she chooses, often female, are fascinating and will be unfamiliar to most readers.

Undergirding Dana Robert’s work is a passion for Christian mission. In 2010 she was selected as a keynote speaker for the Edinburgh centenary of the World Missionary Conference. This was an important assignment. Edinburgh 1910 is widely held to be the high watermark in the history of Christian mission. In her lecture, Robert argued that nothing should discourage Christians from “… sharing God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ with all the world.”1 Clearly, Robert is a friend to Christian mission, an advocate of it. But how can she manage to uphold the integrity of Christian mission in a pluralistic climate often hostile to the propagation of faith? Robert handles this well in her book. By bringing out the humanity of missionaries, rather than focusing on the charged rancor of cultural imperialism, she steers a wise course. Her stories are moving. For example, she discusses the 1999 tragedy involving Graham Staines and his two young boys who were burned to death by Hindu fanatics; his widow forgave the killers and continued working in the leper home founded by her husband. She also discusses the admirable work of Maria Skobtskaya who ran a shelter and soup kitchen for Russian refugees in Paris in the 1920s. She was eventually arrested by Nazis for rescuing Jewish children. On Good Friday 1945 she died a martyr in Ravensbrück concentration camp after trading places with a Jew. Ursuline missionary Marie Guyart is another saintly woman highlighted in the book. Guyart took a vow of celibacy and traveled to Canada in 1639 to become “the first missionary woman in North America.” In the face of priestly opposition she spent over thirty years cloistered in a convent running a girls school until the day she died.

Robert provides an important corrective to those who dismiss Christian missions as a colonial relic or worse. Throughout history, mission work consisted of people giving their lives to others. This often meant boarding a ship and starting life from scratch—learning a new language, making new friends, adopting a foreign lifestyle—all in the name of bringing “good news.” Missionaries were expected to be buried in the ground they tilled. Today, however, the era of life-long mission commitment is virtually over. People now prefer short-term mission trips of one or two weeks, leading to what Robert calls “mission amateurs.”

A critical insight in this book is that we are in a new era of global missions. Robert selects the Billy Graham inspired 1974 Lausanne conference as a turning point. While the missionary impulse might have waned in the mid-twentieth century, Lausanne represents a shift. Today mission has become breathtakingly international, it shoots in all directions, it has a Pentecostal bent, and it is as lively as ever. It is not dying.

I highly recommend this book to students and scholars of Christian missions. It would make an excellent complement in history of missions courses. It would also be a helpful entry point for engaging the impact of women—the other half of the story—in church history.

Dyron B. Daughrity

Associate Professor of Religion

Pepperdine University

Malibu, California, USA


Professor Daughrity is the author of The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion (reviewed in this issue), as well as the lead article in this issue of Missio Dei.

1 Dana L. Robert, “Dana Robert Calls for Common Witness to Christ Despite Divisions,” News, Edinburgh 2010: Witnessing to Christ Today, http://www.edinburgh2010.org/en/news/en/article/4645/dana-robert-calls-for-com.html.