Monday, June 08, 2009

An Interview with Mark Noll about The New Shape of World Christianity

Mark Noll's latest book, which I've recently highlighted, is The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (IVP, 2009). Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame and among the most respected historians of evangelicalism working today. Below is a brief interview with him about his new book.

Why is American Christianity important for the world?

The argument of the book that it is of course important for many contacts between the U.S. and the rest of the world that can be measured in terms of "influence." But it is even more important because the U.S. pioneered a pattern of "Christianity after Christendom" that has become the main pattern for Christian expression in the rest of the world. By this I mean, more lay-oriented, less tied to government, more entrepreneurial, more charismatic, and less structured.

One of the main points of the book seems to be that the American form of Christianity accounts for America’s most significant contribution to this new shape of world Christianity. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the way in which American Christianity developed from its European predecessors? Are there historical precursors to what happened here in the 19th century, or was it a new form altogether?

Europeans looking at the U.S. in the early 19th century knew that Christianity could not flourish because the faith had always had the support of governments in Europe (at least since the 4th century, so for 1400 years). Amazingly, however, Christianity flourished in the U.S. with no government assistance (to speak of), with bottoms-up lay initiative, and through the use of voluntary societies. The missiologist Andrew Walls has written profoundly about the huge impact of voluntary societies on world Christianity. My book is, in a sense, only an extended footnote on Walls' very important insights.

For those unfamiliar with Walls's work, where should they start?

I'd start with The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith.

So if it’s true that the American way of doing Christianity is being replicated successfully to some degree, how do we determine whether it’s correlation (i.e., it just happens to be a common pragmatic form that works well) or it’s causation (others around the world are looking to American as a model)?

A very good question. A new book by Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, leans in the direction of causation, although Wuthnow is characteristically very nuanced in what he says. I lean in the direction of "correlation," since it seems to me that, whatever important influence comes from outside, it is what happens in other regions of the world as guided by the believers themselves that is most important. Here I follow another very important contemporary historian, Lamin Sanneh, whose work on "translation" [Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture] has shown how much independence always exists wherever people receive the gospel message translated for themselves. The translators may have ideas what they are doing, but the ones who use the translation end up with the final say.

I was struck by a couple of lines that you wrote in the final chapter in which you offer your reflections: “The gospel that legitimates the particular upholds the universal. . . .The gospel belongs to every one in every culture; it belongs to no one in any one culture in particular.” It seems to me that some of us functionally think of of ourselves as American Christians (assuming that our form of Christianity is culture-less and purely biblical) and others think of ourselves as American Christians (assuming that because our form of Christianity is Americanized it is somehow inherently defective). Any counsel on how to avoid those two errors? (Assuming, of course, that you agree that they are wrong!)

In my view, there is and never has been Christian life that rises above culture. The differences in the Christian world are between varieties of inculturated Christianity, not between those that are more or less involved in their cultures. Studying the world history of Christianity helps avoid the real errors you mention because it also one to relativize one's own culture relatively. That is, it shows that all of the things we do as Christians reflect some influence from the cultures in which we are situated, but it also shows that the various Christianities of the world (all defined in part by their particular cultures) share much in common.

What have been some of the personal challenges and encouragements that you have received as a result of immersing yourself in this study of the new shape of world Christianity?

I have been humbled by how far, wide, and fast the Christian gospel has spread without anyone asking my permission! This realization has probably made me a little less dogmatic about seeing the form of Christian faith that seems best to me as absolutely the best expression (that is, if I think some combination of evangelical, Calvinist, and Lutheran Protestantism with hints of Pentecostalism and Catholicism added is the absolute best, I'm not entirely sure that I need to insist that it will be the best for all Christian believers elsewhere in all times. By contrast, I've also come to believe that, even with the tremendous diversity in Christian communities around the world, there is a deep reservoir of common elements (especially worshiping Christ, reading the Scriptures, being challenged for sin, being opened to grace) that relativizes our particular cultural relativity. That's probably too complicated--I think it is a little clearer in the book!