We don’t get the issues (behind the book) on the table with descriptive clarity until chp 4 in Mark Noll’s new book, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, and in my estimation Noll is making a proposal that flies in the face of a plenty of popular thinkers today.
What is your general view of the missionary movement of American Christianity? What are the negatives and positives of the American missionary movement? Does the church have the obligation and the vocation to spread the gospel? Is missionary work the best way to do that? What is missionary work — in your view?
What about missionaries? What about American evangelical missionaries traveling around the world, gospeling and bringing with them their American ways? These are the questions behind Noll’s book, and he sets out three basic options for how folks are examining the relationship of American Christianity to the world’s cultures:
First, some think the whole thing smacks of manipulation and colonialism (which always evokes the term “exploitation”). In other words, some interpret the whole missionary enterprise as capturing the world for America.
Second, some think of missionary work as influencing cultures and the world but not in a manipulative sense; instead, the emphasis will be on these cultures choosing to participate in the missionary work and the gospel.
Third, others think in less than causation and more in correlation terms. Noll’s own thesis — and this is important for the whole series we are doing about his book — is that it is shared and common historical experience that led to similarities between American and world Christianities.
Noll uses The Jesus Film as an example of how to examine the appropriate of these terms, or one might say how these three views can explain the film’s universal presence and impact. If I were teaching a class, I’d ask the class to converse about how each view would explain the film.
Let’s get some numbers in our head, and this one shocked me: in 1800 there were less than 100 foreign missionaries; in 1914 there were over 21,000! The 19th Century is the Century of missionary work. In 1800 Christians were 23.1% of the world; in 1914 that number had become 34.9%. In 1800 there were 28 million non-white Christians; in 1914 there were 149 million! In 1800 67 languages had the Bible; in 1914 676 languages did!
Noll examines the American Christian evangelical experience in three terms: identity, power, and culture — with good examples of the importance of each.
One of his more significant conclusions — at least for me — is that evangelicalism reflects an anti-traditionalism, a lack of institutional authority, and a need to thrive in new environments. Evangelicals tend to follow charismatic leaders instead of the power of tradition.
Evangelicalism has made “power” problematic and this has led to lack of unity and to schisms. It’s belief in the Bible does not acknowledge the power of interpretive choice and therefore of a lack of tradition that guides interpretation.
Culturally, evangelicalism has not always recognized its own cultural adaptability and, in fact, its entrapment in culture. But its adaptability permits powerful capacities to incarnate the gospel in a variety of cultures — and he examines how Koreans have translated the Bible’s use of the word “God.”