playlist_add_check Review Article
The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. 302 pp. $34.95..
Ever since I started teaching a class called “Global Christianity,” I have wished for a single-volume, comprehensive, summary textbook. The volume edited by Adrian Hastings (A World History of Christianity, Eerdmans, 2000) is a valuable resource, but I was hoping to find the unified production of a single author. For this reason, I was glad to discover Dyron Daughrity’s new book, and I was eager to evaluate it. Could it be the textbook that I had been seeking? I wondered how he would tackle this enormous, variegated subject. Would he approach it region by region, or would he attempt to weave every region into a single chronological narrative? I was also curious to see if he would broach the thorny issues of contextualization and syncretism. Would he define the limits of Christian doctrinal flexibility, or would he merely pose the questions?
Daughrity’s approach is clear from the beginning, as he introduces his readers to eight different “cultural blocks”: the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. One might quibble with his decision to treat China and India together, or with his inclusion of Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco with the nations of sub-Saharan Africa; his arrangements, however, are thoughtful and calculated, and they take history, politics, and language into account. Each cultural block is treated in a separate chapter, and the coverage begins with an encyclopedic narration of statistics: populations, birth rates, percentages of religious adherents, and life expectancies are among the details. These, in turn, are used to introduce regional overviews that place Christian developments in a larger historical framework. Each chapter concludes, then, with brief nation-by-nation summaries that provide information pertaining to the current state of Christianity. These sections offer a mixed and unpredictable bag of details: Italy seems to be secularizing (but not as quickly as France); Zimbabwe has criminalized witch hunts; and unemployment has reached 90% in Nauru.
The encyclopedic sections can make for tedious reading, and statistics can be misleading. To his credit, Daughrity calls our attention to the most significant data, and he is willing to call the numbers into question. He has noted, for instance, the imprecision of the Dalit census in India, which directly influences the reported percentage of Christian adherents. There are other contexts, however, where the distortions are more serious: to cite one important example, Daughrity says that African Indigenous Religions are losing statistical ground to Christianity. Those numbers, however, cannot reflect the ways in which Christianity has been blended with the African Indigenous Religions, making it difficult, at times, to ascertain which faith is gaining and which faith is declining.
The most fascinating discussions are the ones that seek to interpret the events that are being examined. This can be seen when Daughrity muses about the secular future of Europe and North America. He is well-informed about the theories and trends, and his observations deserve careful attention. He is also quite honest with the sordid history of European colonialism, and he is refreshingly fair-minded when he discusses the missionaries who worked in that context. He asks some crucial (and difficult) questions: Why did conquered peoples adopt the religion of their oppressors? Is there something innately imperialistic about religious missions? He does not define the limits of Christian doctrine, but he calls attention to problems of translation, contextualization, and syncretism. Which elements of doctrine must a person embrace (and which ones must be rejected) before that person can be counted as a Christian?
With a citation from the Kenyan John Mbiti, Daughrity implies that the traditions of the Western Christian heritage have handled Christianity “as they wished” (211). Indeed, until we recognize the way our own theologies have been determined by our own circumstances, we will struggle to think responsibly about the way foreign cultures have defined the Christian faith. This kind of self-examination will be essential as the global church attempts to evaluate Chinese interpretations of the cross, Indian definitions of God, or African perspectives on marriage and family. This book is not designed to investigate the problems of historical contingency, but it certainly points the reader toward a lively discussion of that issue.
One might question some of the statements in this book: Ramadan, for instance, is a lunar month and does not occur “roughly in September and October” (11). Also, there were no Nestorian missionaries in the fourth century (172). The Changing World of Christianity, however, is laden with good information from many diverse sources, and it represents a striking achievement. Daughrity should be congratulated for creating an informative, provocative introduction that brings some order to this bewildering new frontier in the study of Christian history. In the coming semester, my students will need to order this book!
Keith B. Huey
Professor of Religion
Rochester Hills, Michigan, USA