World on Fire

Book review of Walls, Andrew F. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 2002.

In this set of essays, Andrew Walls unfolds the map of Christian mission in the last two centuries and traces its cross-cultural trajectory as it crosses the contours of history and place. Walls identifies the plotted path of evangelical leaders at the Edinburgh council in 1910 as reaching the ends of the earth. But the path of Christian mission has not been blazing that anticipated path forward from Edinburgh through resources, leadership, conversions, and a globalized Western Christianity.

Instead, like a wildfire blaze, strongest at its margins, the church has spread at its frontiers by cross-cultural diffusion. The shape of this mission contours to the bio-diverse topography of the different people groups, languages, and cultures of the unreached, non-Westernized world at the turn of the century. So, Walls argues that Christianity’s mission has gotten coldest in its Western center and hottest at its margins—the Global South. While Walls’ thesis can come across as sprawling, unfocused, and too broad, Nelson Jenningmap-pinss recommends Walls as “perhaps our day’s most insightful missions analyst.”[1]

He unpacks the meat of the thesis in the first 4 chapters, investigating the nature of mission, historiography, and how a deeper understanding of both illuminates both. In the 2nd section of this book, Walls particularizes his thesis with a missiological look at Africa’s role in Christianity, Christianity’s role in Africa, and Africa as the “theater of engagement” with Islam. Lastly, where most would stop when the well seems dry, Walls digs deeper on the British and African influence in this episode of Christian mission. Critical to Wall’s thesis is the 1st four essays, a full reexamination of Christian mission. Starting on the foundation of historian Latourette’s 3 signs of Christian expansion—kingdom, church, and gospel—Walls establishes that “it is only possible to take in a new idea in terms of ideas we already have.”[2] So, he argues, the West’s missionary focus is not the culminating work of cross-cultural advances. Instead, it is one episode in a series of movements that started in Antioch in Acts 11.

For me it is helpful to think of the mission’s bulletin board in so many of the churches. We often look at Christian mission as yarn emenating out from Western missionary’s smiling faces to thumbtacks placed in remote locales. I’ve been one of those smiling faces with thumbtacks in three different continents before. The mistaken belief when we see that map is that missional success is when we, the West, mobilize people, resources, and churches to establish Western thumbtacks in non-Western contexts until the map is filled with thumbtacks. Walls countermands this false Christendom perspective of belief in the movement of missions.

Rather, and most notably, he says that wherever Christianity has been strongest, going back to Biblical times, eventually that light has burned out. How easily, he notes, “the kingdom sign embodied within human movements passes into counter-sign”[3] Building off Kenneth Scott Latourette’s thesis that Christianity has not been a steady triumphant march through history, Walls points out that cultural boundaries like Yemen or his own, Great Britain, were once solidly Christian. If one were to take cross-sections of human history within a particular culture, the Christian march would be seen as a staggered one-step forward, two steps-backward. His point is not so that we would lose hope and trust in the triumphant nature of Christ’s victory, but that we would notice the distinct nature of Christian movement in human history and let go of our triumphalism.

Here is the clearest articulation of his thesis. “Christian history reveals the faith often withering in its heartlands, in its centers of seeming strength and importance, to establish itself on or beyond its margins. In other words, cross-cultural diffusion has been necessary to Christianity.”[4] The rest of the book unpacks this thesis in those marginal areas. Interestingly to note, Christianity has if anything receded in the world sectors seen as Christian since Edinburgh, and has increased in unreached or unaddressed areas like Africa and Latin America.

One aspect of this is how Christianity differs from Islam. Where Christianity is fragile, Islam is rigid. Islam does not give ground easily, where Christian mission historically does. Christianity does not bring with it, or rather should not bring with it, whole laws and rules of culture as Islam. It does not belong to a particular place as many tribal religions do. It is a global religion that has a place in every topographical contour, or culture to which it spreads. Walls briefly talks about how African tribes have or had vernacular names for God all throughout pre-Christian Africa, whereas Islam must teach the language in which one hears God.

[1] Nelson Jennings, God the Real Superporwer: Rethinking Our Role in Missions, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2007, 147.

[2] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process, 41.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Ibid., 67.

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