How American Experience Reflects Global Faith
By Mark Noll
InterVarsity, 212 pages, $25
EIGHT YEARS AGO, Diana Eck published a much talked about book called A New Religious America, in which she argued that the forces of globalization had transformed America from a Christian nation to a religiously pluralistic nation like many others in the world. Now Mark Noll has turned Eck’s thesis on its head. In The New Shape of World Christianity he argues not that globalization has made American religion pluralistic but that American Christianity has been a model for much of the rest of the globe—particularly with the transfer of traditional American models of Christianity to the churches of the developing world.
Noll’s book brings together two burgeoning areas of scholarship. The first concerns the origins of evangelicalism. As late as forty years ago, many scholars considered evangelicalism a retrograde, antimodern movement. Drawing on themes he explicated in his 2004 book The Rise of Evangelicalism, Noll suggests instead that evangelicalism began as a creative religious response to the situation of its time. The modern cracks in the social and cultural world of Christendom called for a new model of Christianity. Particularly in America, evangelicalism inaugurated new impulses—more oriented to the Bible and individual conscience than to tradition or history, more pragmatic than dogmatic, more entrepreneurial and self-motivating than tied to inherited patterns of operations. It was a form of Christianity that thrived without support from the state. Emphasizing action over speculation, evangelicalism possessed the flexibility that the new world demanded. And it created dynamic organizations that transformed the world.
The second area of scholarship joined in Noll’s new book concerns the emerging churches in Asia and Africa. Noll, like many other recent authors, notes the growth, spirit, and enthusiasm of these new churches. There are already more Presbyterian worshipers in Ghana than in Scotland—and more Anglicans in East Africa than in England, Canada, and the United States combined. Some individual congregations in Korea are larger than the sum of all the churches in certain American denominations.
So how does one explain this new Christian world? Here we come to the heart of Noll’s thesis. Noll argues that all this new Christianity has been shaped largely by American evangelicalism, and he suggests that the crucial elements are American forms, not American influence. Asia and Africa are undergoing the social, cultural, and economic dislocation and collapse of the traditional order that hit Europe and North America two hundred years earlier. Why should it be a surprise that third-world Christians are turning to the dynamic, entrepreneurial, self-motivating form of evangelical Christianity for the same reason that Americans did?
One of the examples Noll uses to describe American and third-world interaction is the success of The Jesus Film. Conceived by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, the movie is a dramatic rendering of the Gospel of Luke, and it tells the viewer that Christianity is a personal choice to accept Jesus Christ. Translated into over a thousand languages, the goal of its advocates is “to show The Jesus Film to every person in the world.” For Noll, this reflects both American evangelicals’ ingenuity and skill with modern technology and the amazing initiative of third-world churches in distributing the film.
Embedded in The New Shape of World Christianity is a series of case studies. Two of the most illuminating describe Korea and East Africa—two great success stories in world Christianity. Both at first glance appear to be simple cases of American influence, but Noll shows them to be more complex. It is true, he acknowledges, that American missionaries in Korea played a large role, but the revival they preached resonated with Korea’s earlier religious heritage. Likewise, he notes, the East African revival that began in the 1930s was influenced by Keswick holiness and the Moral Re-Armament movement of Frank Buchman. But its persuasive power came from the correspondence of its piety and practices (such as group confession) to traditions already present in those African communities. In both cases, vital and dynamic forms of Christianity came about through the merging of American evangelical forms and indigenous action.
This vitality is transforming the face of world Christianity. As Noll shows, the missionary wave no longer flows from Europe and North America to Africa and Asia. It goes, instead, in the other direction: At present 35,000 foreign missionaries labor in the United States, while thousands more serve in Britain, France, Germany, and Italy.
The New Shape of World Christianity is a striking volume on many levels, but it is also a frustrating one, and the reader’s frustration stems from the title. The book is not really about the new shape of world Christianity but about one shape. Analysis of Catholicism in the Southern Hemisphere, for instance, is missing completely. After reading Noll’s account of Korea, one wants to cry out, What about the Philippines?—the most Christian nation in Asia. Through all the discussion of the East African revival, the reader may forget that Catholicism is the majority faith in Angola, Gabon, Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo. Noll may be right to suggest that the practice of group confession appealed more strongly to African spirituality than did the practice of sacerdotal confession, but Uganda, the epicenter of the East African revival, nonetheless has nearly as many Catholics as Protestants. The experience of these Christians is crucial for understanding the shape of world Christianity. Adrian Hastings, in The Church in Africa, 1450–1950, famously observed that Protestants in Africa became more Protestant and Catholics more Catholic. African Protestantism picked up Protestant themes of independence, biblicism, and rejection of tradition, while African Catholics put the unity and authority of the hierarchical church first. Noll’s volume admirably validates the first half of Hastings’ claim. The second half remains unexplored.
Noll admits this limitation, and it is true that the great flowering of scholarly interest in world Christianity over the past fifteen years has been primarily an evangelical Protestant endeavor. Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh, and others have made the interesting claim that the translation of Scripture into all the globe’s languages is a reflection of the Incarnation. Certainly that great undertaking has been central to incarnating the Christian faith in new cultures, allowing indigenous peoples to lay full claim to the biblical narrative.
But this thesis is far more helpful in understanding the spread of Protestantism in Africa (for which this act of biblical translation has been fundamental) than Catholicism in Africa (where as late as the 1950s, there was no full African translation of the Old Testament for Catholics). Clearly, world Catholicism has a different shape from the one Noll sketches. But precisely what is that shape? No one has taken up the question of world Catholicism to the innovative degree that Walls and others have for Protestantism. Indeed, with the discrediting of the liberation-theology paradigm, no overall picture of the life and dynamism of Catholicism in the third world now exists. Clearly, such a big picture is crucial, since the reversal of the missionary flow toward Western Europe and North America is as much a Catholic as an evangelical phenomenon, as attested by the large number of African and Asian priests at work in the United States. But such a work is yet to be done.
Mark Noll has offered both a remarkable picture and a challenge. He has traced the influence of the American model of evangelicalism on world Christianity and has shown its power. In this way, he offers keen insight into the new shape of world Christianity. And he has challenged others to tell the rest of the story.
Robert Bruce Mullin is Society for the Promotion of Religion and Learning Professor of History and World Mission and professor of modern Anglican studies at the General Theological Seminary in New York.