Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

In God’s Continent, Philip Jenkins examines the developments and changes occurring in the religious landscape of the European continent. The author has emerged as a key voice in the study of the growth of the church in non-Western settings. It could be argued that Jenkins has done more than any other American academic to bring into the mainstream of American thought, the reality of a changing global Christianity. Jenkins’ award-winning and highly-acclaimed work The Next Christendom serves as the most recognizable and broadly-received statement to the church of the reality of the changing face of Christianity.  Philip Jenkins currently serves as the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of the Humanities at Penn State University and works in both the History and Religious Studies departments. Jenkins has dozens of books to his credit, many on the topic of global Christianity.

In God’s Continent Jenkins directs his attention towards the current state of religion in Europe. While the story of European Christianity has been well documented in church history books, God’s Continent explores the more recent developments in European religion.  Jenkins offers an alternative narrative to the dominant assumption that Islam is ascending in the context of an overly secularized, post-Christian Europe. The assertion that “Europe is acquiring much greater ethnic and cultural diversity is certain, but [for Jenkins] the religious implications are less clear” (14). “The core issue, then, is less the ethnic character of a future Europe than is religious tone, and that question remains very open” (19).

Jenkins explores three different threads to develop his examination of European religion. First, Jenkins examines the changes in European Christianity and challenges the assumption that the European continent has lost its Christian presence and has slipped into a deep and entrenched anti-religious secularism. Second, Jenkins focuses on the development of Islam in Europe and reveals a more complex picture of the presence of Muslims in Europe. Finally, Jenkins projects the future of religion in Europe and provides a more nuanced trajectory for European religion.

Similar to Jenkins’ previous works on global Christianity, God’s Continent contains statistical analysis (usually showing the numerical trends of decline and ascension in different areas of the world) and a future projection of potential conflict between emerging faiths (typically between Christianity and Islam). God’s Continent follows that pattern by tracing the changing demographics and statistics of European religion. Jenkins points to the decline of Christianity as evidenced by the declining number of baptisms and the plunging number of seminarians, while simultaneously emphasizing the rise of Islam.

Contrary to his previous works, Jenkins presents a more nuanced argument regarding the complex nature of European religion. While acknowledging the numerical decline of Christianity in Europe, Jenkins asserts that this decline is not a simplistic phenomenon. “In western Europe too, some incidents suggest that Christianity is less moribund than the formal statistics might suggest” (58). The sustaining of religion in Europe may surprise some because it runs against a simplistic application of secularization theory. “Contrary to widespread assumptions, then, rising Islam will not be expanding into an ideological or religious vacuum” (54).

Christianity in Europe has been subject to simplistic analysis and depicted as succumbing to a triumphant wave of secularism.  While there has been a notable decline of church participation, Jenkins notes that “falling levels of observance and church attendance cannot simply be equated with pure secularism, suggesting instead that people are ‘believing without belonging’” (64). Furthermore, the decline of Christianity in Europe could spur on new expressions of Christianity that may contain greater vibrancy. “In a minority setting, Christianity can restructure itself to serve the needs of a new society, demanding more commitment and involvement in some areas of life while acknowledging greater flexibility in others” (56).  Jenkins sees life in European Christianity by pointing towards the resurgence and revivalism among established Christians like the Anglicans, the growing strength of the Evangelical Alliance, and the growth of immigrant churches among Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans.

The strength of this contribution rests on Jenkins’ more nuanced argument regarding European Christianity. Jenkins presents a more layered perspective by presenting the resilience of Christianity in Europe. Jenkins believes not only in the survival of Christianity in Europe, but the potential resurgence of Christianity. Jenkins’ analysis, therefore, does not rely upon the heightening of conflict between Christianity and Islam. The weakness of this contribution hinges on Jenkins’ reversion to the confrontational language employed in his previous works. While acknowledging a more nuanced reality, Jenkins still employs potentially inflammatory language. His use of terms like “conflict” (when addressing the relationship between Christianity and Islam), “clashing values,” and “tension” does not offer a conciliatory posture.

As one of the more recognizable voices in the burgeoning story of world Christianity, Jenkins’ work on European Christianity should serve to sharpen our dialogue on the changing religious landscape of Europe. The hope is that this dialogue would not deteriorate into confrontational language. An ongoing key contribution of Jenkins could be the presentation of a religious reality that gestures towards a potential reconciliation between the different strains of religion that are emerging in Europe and throughout the rest of the world.


Every Christian needs to have read something by Andrew Walls. Even if it’s a portion of his writing, like the landmark article, “The Ephesian Moment.” I offer a review of one of his foundational works.

In The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, Andrew Walls seeks to provide missiological and theological insight into the significant changes that have occurred in Christianity, particularly during the twentieth century. Walls’ primary intention is not to document or statistically verify the demographic changes in world Christianity, but instead, to focus attention on the ways that the ongoing cultural adaptation of Christianity contributes to these demographic changes.

Beginning with the historical event of the cross, Walls examines the sweep of church history.  Walls proceeds to reflect on the ongoing movement of God in the current context of world Christianity and emphasizes the cross-cultural, barrier-crossing nature of Christianity – a process that has endured for over two thousand years. The ongoing story of the Church relies upon the cross-cultural process of adaptation and transmission for its robust growth.

Walls’ thesis leads to an explication of the Ephesian moment in church history. Walls describes the Ephesian moment as the emergence of a new cultural expression of Christianity that is not an abrogation of an older expression, a syncretism with a newly encountered expression, nor a synthesis of the old with the new. “The very height of Christ’s full stature is reached only by the coming together of the different cultural entities into the body of Christ. Only “together,” not on our own, can we reach his full stature” (77).  For Walls, the ongoing crossing of cultures and the embodiment of Christ in different cultures is the fulfillment of the move of God in the church. “The Ephesian moment, then, brings a church more culturally diverse than it has ever been before; potentially, therefore, nearer to that ’full stature of Christ’ that belongs to his summing up of humanity” (81).

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a landmark book in the study of missions and church history in the twentieth century. Walls successfully contrasts the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh[1] with the subsequent changes in world Christianity. While the 1910 Edinburgh Conference anticipated the inevitable triumph of Western Christianity in the twentieth century, the actual history of twentieth century Christianity revealed a Christianity that went beyond the cultural boundaries of Western Christianity.  Instead, the twentieth century witnessed the expansion of Christianity fostered by cultural adaptation.

The strength of Walls’ argument lies in his ability to honor the work of Western missionaries in the 20th century, while simultaneously challenging the prevailing narrative of a triumphalistic Western missionary endeavor.  In short, Walls honors the legacy of 20th century Western missions, but at the same time, offers an alternative interpretation of Western missions and points the church towards a dynamic future. Walls demonstrates the positive theological outcomes of these demographic changes and places these changes in the context of a larger view of church history.

[1] Walls claims that the Edinburgh conference “was a landmark in the history of mission; . . . the high point of the Western missionary movement and the point from which it declined” (53).

In Revive Us Again Joel Carpenter offers a picture of fundamentalism in the second quarter of the twentieth century that challenges the prevailing notion of a movement in retreat destined for extinction. While wounded, fundamentalists did not dissolve into the sea of secularization and modernity after the public confrontations of the 1920s, but grew in strength during subsequent decades. Carpenter depicts a robust fundamentalism that spent those decades regrouping and forming infrastructures of media, educational institutions, and para-church organizations. The successful engagement with the surrounding American culture made straight the path for a public resurgence in the 1950s.  Evangelicals in the latter half of the twentieth century inherited not only a theological conservatism, but also the surprisingly nimble cultural adaptability of fundamentalists. Carpenter offers a well written, thoroughly researched, and convincing narrative of a movement that took pride in its uncompromising separatism but ultimately flourished in the twentieth century because of its adaptability.

In the pursuit of establishing the fundamentalist roots of evangelicalism, Carpenter draws too straight a line connecting the two movements. Carpenter portrays the successful Graham revivals as having a direct link to the fundamentalism of the previous decades. The burgeoning evangelical movement in the 1950s owes a great debt to the foundational efforts of fundamentalism. However, Carpenter does not offer a clear distinction between fundamentalists and evangelicals, oftentimes using the two terms interchangeably. Carpenter diminishes the possibility that the evangelicalism that emerges in the second half of the twentieth century links to a longer thread that weaves together the Protestant Reformation, Puritanism, Pietism, Methodism, Pentecostalism, Holiness traditions and other expressions of American Christianity. What Carpenter characterizes as the re-insertion of fundamentalism into American life could be interpreted as the re-forming of fundamentalism into American evangelicalism.

Many years ago when I was pastoring a church in Cambridge, I was praying for a young Asian-American college student who came up to me after the Sunday worship service.  He said that he was struggling with the concept of sin.  He didn’t feel particularly sinful and was wondering what it meant for a person to be a sinner. This individual considered himself to be a pretty good person. In fact, his family, his friends, and the society around him had declared him to be a good person.  He was a model student, a model son, and a model minority.  He didn’t understand how he could be a sinner.

Many years later, I was sitting with an African-American pastor friend.  He had been a significant mentor to me in helping our church walk through issues related to urban youth ministry.  He challenged my understanding of how to do altar calls.  He contrasted the evangelical Christian (as well as my own) need and tendency to elicit a sense of sinfulness from the individual seeking conversion. He asserted that many African-American youth have already been told by society how wretched they are. They don’t need the church to tell them that they are sinful and that there’s something spiritually not right about them – they’ve been told that all their life. Your Asian-American Harvard undergrad is the one who really needs to hear that they might actually fall short of the glory of God.

Unchained Voices is a collection of writings from black authors from the 18th century, edited by Vincent Carretta. It’s interesting to observe the repeated note of self-awareness about one’s sinfulness and “wretchedness” in the narratives offered by Carretta. For example, David George writes: “there was no possibility of relief, and that I must go to hell.  I saw myself a mass of sin. I could not read, and had no scriptures. I did not think of Adam and Eve’s sin, but I was sin. I felt my own plague” (334-335).  Equiano also reflects this perspective: “I felt that I was altogether unholy . . . I was still in nature’s darkness” (260).

Conversion requires a sense of one’s own guilt, sinfulness, and wretchedness.  I don’t have a problem with that doctrine, but it is interesting how circumstances, history, and context often determine how that doctrine is received, appropriated and applied.

And herein is the reminder: “Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”  But why is it that some of us are made to feel more like a wretch than others?

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden challenges existing assumptions and portrays a more robust description of the emergence of fundamentalism.  Marsden offers an analysis of a movement that responded to the social, intellectual, and religious crises of their time.  Fundamentalists did not merely withdraw from these cultural changes, but engaged these changes in direct ways. Marsden depicts fundamentalists as expressing a distinct version of evangelical Christianity uniquely shaped by the circumstances of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — a time marked by an openly turning away from God.

Marsden’s description of the critical role of Scottish Common Sense Realism and Baconian scientific method in the fundamentalist worldview provides a contrasting image to the caricature of the backwater, uneducated, anti-intellectual, rural, Southern fundamentalist.  Understanding fundamentalists in proper context requires inquiry into the northern expression in denominational and educational contexts. The fundamentalists’ concern rested not in the use of any intellectual and scientific thought, but in the type of science appropriated by the modernists. Fundamentalists viewed their own epistemology as a rational system in contrast to modern liberalism’s reliance upon unproven hypotheses.

While Marsden’s work impresses in its breadth of coverage, the ambitious attempt to provide an expansive and comprehensive description of fundamentalism falls short in his under-represents of the experience of Southern evangelicals who faced less strident opposition. Because of the minimal discussion on Southern fundamentalism, the presentation of the Scopes Trial feels abrupt and under-analyzed. More explication of the Southern stream of fundamentalism would serve as a welcomed addition, not merely to recapitulate the existing work on Southern evangelicalism but to fulfill Marsden’s attempt to provide a thicker and more comprehensive description of fundamentalism.

In Southern Cross, Christine Heyrman explores the historical development of evangelicalism in the South. In the 18th century, evangelicalism presented an alternative for subordinate groups. The 19th century witnessed the capitulation of evangelicalism to the dominant values of southern culture. Evangelicalism retreated from promises of liberation and invested in upholding the equality and honor of white men above African-Americans and women. Adaptation to the norms of southern society laid the groundwork for much of evangelicalism’s subsequent success and formation. Drawing upon primary sources, Heyrman provides an engaging and convincing narrative. Two key elements of Heyrman’s argument were particularly well constructed. Heyrman reveals evangelicalism’s shifting position on the slavery issue as an example of capitulation to the prevailing value system. Heyrman also demonstrates that the diminishment of women in the evangelical movement reflects acquiescence to the culture. Heyrman explores how the ability to adapt to cultural expectations could have significant negative consequences. The cultural captivity of southern evangelicalism resulted in the loss of a prophetic voice and in my opinion, the loss of the full gospel message.

Douglas Sweeney’s work presents a broad overview of American evangelical history. In the preface, Sweeney explains that the center of gravity for evangelicalism now resides outside of Europe and North America. This key observation shapes the book’s movement towards his statement “that though we have always been diverse . . . evangelicals share a heritage that is both rich and spiritually powerful – a legacy worth passing on to future generations.” (11) Various authors have attempted to define evangelicalism, with the concomitant action of narrowing its parameters. Donald Dayton and Robert Johnston lead the way in defying “neat and tidy categorization.” They suggest “that evangelicals resemble a large, extended family and should be described in only a general manner in terms of their ‘family resemblance’ rather than pigeonholed with excessive, propositional precision.” (21).
The strength of Sweeney’s work rests in his ability to provide a larger picture of evangelical history that encompasses the story of pietists, Pentecostals, African-American Christians, and others, while maintaining coherence. Rather than describing evangelicalism with a doctrinal rigidity, Sweeney describes behavioral aspects such as revivalism, pietism, and missionary zeal. Sweeney’s approach reflects the desire of an insider to “refresh our shared, historical memory, [that it] may help us to regain our spiritual bearings” (185).
For most historians and theologians, the American evangelical story has been the story of white Americans. Because of this dominant narrative, there has been an exclusion of the story of non-white evangelicals. Sweeney’s broadening of the evangelical story to include African-American Christianity provides a significant contribution. With a growing diversity evident in both global Christianity and American evangelicalism, Sweeney strengthens the connection between evangelical history and evangelicalism’s future trajectory. Sweeney’s work provides an example of an attempt to encompass “the great wealth of evangelical diversity” (19).

So every Friday, I’m going to offer up a book review. Just to keep fresh on various topics. Will also post good book reviews from students as I receive them. FIRST UP: Harry Stout’s classic work on George Whitefield: The Divine Drmatist.

Harry Stout presents a portrait of George Whitefield as “Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age” (xvi).  Whitefield’s innovations related to revivals in the Anglo-American context (such as the incorporation of the theatrical in preaching, the para-church nature of his ministry, and the willingness to compete in the marketplace) reveals his ability to adapt to the emerging consumer culture (xvii).  This adaptability reflects a salient characteristic of modern evangelicalism. Evangelicalism has demonstrated the ability to adjust to cultural trends over the course of American history and Whitefield provides the example and prototype of evangelicalism’s intersection with contemporary culture.

Utilizing primary source material, Stout presents a compelling argument. The strength of Stout’s argument lies in its comprehensive nature and his ability to trace a consistent profile throughout the narrative.  One question that I would raise about the work, however, is the seeming ease with which Stout attributes negative motives to Whitefield. On numerous occasions, Stout questions the purity of Whitefield’s motives and seems to focus on his negative motives.[1] Is there more conjecture than is necessary by Stout? While one could argue the merits of dissecting Whitefield’s motives, would it be more helpful to focus on outcomes?  Or would that approach reflect the pragmatism of both 18th century and 21st century American evangelicalism?

[1] For example, Stout is quick to attribute pragmatic motivations for Whitefield. This perspective could easily disintegrate into a second-hand interpretation of a fame hungry demagogue desperately willing to resort to anything to accomplish his own goals. More could be said about the possibility of a purity in his motivation.