Those who write the history of Christianity usually focus on a deliberate and conscious mission. But it is misleading. On several occasions, the church has spread through actions that do not appear to be related to any religious intention. People move and migrate, sometimes reluctantly, and they take their religion with them, often with no particular intention of sharing it beyond their own community. Yet such people create a beachhead for their faith. The believers arrive first and the missionaries follow. Never underestimate the power of chance, or dare we call it Providence?
In an admirably ambitious study, Jehu J. Hanciles sheds light on the relationship between Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Eerdmans). To some extent, his work should be classified as historical, as it covers the first 1,500 years of the faith. But he never loses his focus on the central theme of migration, which he rightly presents as essential to understanding global Christianity at all times. Hanciles frequently refers to his other writings on modern African diasporas, and he never lets us forget the connections and parallels that unite the early centuries to the present day.
Hanciles redraws the historical maps by which we understand Christian history. It rightly emphasizes border regions and border states, those territories which stand uncomfortably between great empires and states, and which so often prove vital to the preservation and transmission of the faith. This is an adventurous transnational study that demands to be read and cited.
Hanciles’ book makes us rethink literal and metaphorical boundaries as well as the mixed and fluid nature of societies in the age of migration and global consciousness. In all senses, he speaks of cross-border people, of people with feet in two or more cultural camps, of people who inevitably move easily between languages ââand identities.
Such identity themes resurface frequently, and intriguingly, in many current studies of emerging churches in the Global South. How, for example, should Christian societies find the values ââand political convictions they need to organize states in conflict-torn regions of the world? How plausibly can they reproduce the Old Testament thought world? This is the question addressed by Christopher Tounsel in Chosen Peoples: Christianity and the Political Imagination in South Sudan (Duke University Press).
Christians in the Sudanese nation fought for many years against an oppressive Islamic regime until areas dominated by Christians gained independence in 2011. For many observers, this represented a triumph of liberation theologies, an exodus of elected peoples. But the new nation of South Sudan was deeply troubled and ravaged by new fighting between ethnic groups who theoretically shared the same beliefs. Any concept of pan-Christian solidarity has evaporated.
In a study that will resonate with anyone familiar with the political language of medieval Christian Europe or the 19th century United States, Tounsel shows how biblical and religious language totally permeated political rhetoric and self-governance. shaping in South Sudan. Tragically, the martial tales and heroes of the Old Testament were particularly inspiring to these latter-day warriors, as were the visions of the theocracy. Elected peoples is richly instructive for understanding the influence of the Bible in societies where it represents a powerful and stimulating new presence.
Observers of global Christianity are often struck by how emerging churches reproduce the controversies of the very early church. The debates and schisms of the second and third centuries resonate faithfully until the twenty-first. This is especially true in understanding the Old and New Testaments and the boundaries that divide them. From the earliest times, at least some Christians have emphasized the Old Testament as equal or even superior to the New and have followed Jewish dietary laws and the Sabbath. Some even now insist on circumcision. While not a huge phenomenon in raw numbers, black Jewish sects are a familiar and well-studied presence across modern Africa.
Similar trends have often affected the rising Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Latin America, although these are less familiar to scholars. At Manoela Carpenedo Becoming a Jew, Believing in Jesus: Judaizing Evangelicals in Brazil (Oxford University Press) is an ethnographic study of a particular sect in a country that is home to many similar movements. Brazil is home to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which has several million members, whose world headquarters is in a building that incorporates a replica of the ancient Second Temple in Jerusalem. Many Brazilian sects espouse the language of “covenant” and “Israelite” and aspire to the promises offered in the Old Testament. In the Latin American context, both Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have spawned dissident sects that enthusiastically Judaize.
In the charismatic group that Carpenedo studies, Judaization goes far beyond mere rhetoric. These believers have walked the path to adopting full Jewish identities. Over time, their vision and practices came closer and closer to Judaism in its orthodox form.
As with their African counterparts, it remains to be seen how these so-called Jews will react to this status being treated with skepticism by true Jews with the appropriate ethnic references. While such Judaization may pose problems in defining Christian identity, it actually raises very few questions or concerns for the Jews themselves, who have strict and well-known criteria for recognizing Jewish status and perform valid conversions. But as a current within global Christianity, such Judaization requires study, and Carpenedo has made a valuable contribution. His many first-hand accounts of the lives of believers are both interesting and moving.
Specialists in religion have a natural tendency to look at the bold or experimental contours of history, sometimes to a degree that means downplaying more common expressions of faith. This is especially true in China, where it is easy to find accounts of independent (and extralegal) house churches or rising sects. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Christians belong to churches in the Three Autonomies who obediently register with the government and do their best to observe the state’s increasingly stringent laws and regulations.
Drawing on years of experience as a pastor of the Christian Reformed Church, Wayne Ten Harmsel presents a fascinating study of The Registered Church in China: Thriving in a Challenging Environment (Pickwick). As conditions for Christians become harsher in this country and official pressure for sinization becomes more aggressive, the word hard sounds more and more like an understatement.
The greatest contribution of the precise and sympathetic study of Ten Harmsel is to give readers an idea of ââthe ordinary realities of the faith lived in these churches. Outsiders might be tempted to dismiss church leaders and members as compromises or even betrayals, but this is not the case. Much like the “frontier” people described by Hanciles, these people are constantly struggling to balance two competing identities: that of a loyal Chinese citizen, under the control of a one-party state, and that of a Christian who has not. no earthly community. These believers walk a delicate path as they try to live a Christian life without compromising their faith.
Let me conclude with an introduction. Over the past quarter century, many authors have offered extensive studies of the rapidly evolving state of global Christianity, and some have been impressive. A new work that really stands out for its scope and accessibility is Global Christianity and the Unfinished Business: A Very Brief Introduction (Cascade) by F. Lionel Young III. This book does an excellent job of squeezing, while still being fully successful in sketching recent trends and identifying pressing issues. Part of this success lies in Young’s ability to integrate personal observations and stories effectively.
Read Joshua Jipp’s New Testament Selections, Susan Willhauck’s Practical Theology Selections, and Anne Blue Wills’ American Religious History Selections.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Take & Read: Global Christianity.”