May 25, 2011
Book Review: "Clouds of Witnesses"
Biographies of Asian and African Christians give valuable perspective.
I’m seated at the front of a university lecture hall with representatives of five other religious traditions. Listening intently to the brief descriptions of our faiths are seventy undergraduate and graduate students, many hailing from other countries. Two weeks later I’m attending a global theology conference at Wheaton College. Presenters describe the theological landscapes in their countries, and it is apparent how significantly these contexts are shaping how evangelical theology is articulated.
Many questions were asked in both of these settings. Good and challenging questions. One question I never heard raised: “Do you believe in hell?” Another one that didn’t come up: “What do you think about Rob Bell?”
I am being a bit snarky; surely Christians around the world ask questions about hell, judgment, eternity and… Rob Bell. However, it was unmistakably clear in both environments that the questions American Christians so passionately debate are not always asked by those who don’t share our cultural context.
When, as I recently read, a prominent Christian claims that the questions raised by Rob Bell and his critics are the questions being asked by Christians, I wonder which Christians we have in mind. I fear our debates sound myopic to those outside the American evangelical subculture. I wonder too whether our ignorance of the questions and concerns of the larger church—down the street and across the globe—limits our opportunities for robust fellowship and mission.
It can be daunting for those of us raised within American Evangelicalism to venture outside of our cultural comfort zone. Fortunately, Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom have written a collection of biographies that provides an excellent starting point. Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (IVP, 2011) features the lives of seventeen Christians from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The rapidly changing global church makes a book like this incredibly important. As the authors point out, “In 1900 more than four-fifths of the world’s Christian population lived in Europe and North America, while a century later about two-thirds live outside those regions. The challenge for American and European believers who become aware of this epochal transformation is to grasp what it meant for Christianity to take root in societies with often very different cultural norms from those in the West.”
These faithful believers reveal a Christianity far larger than most of us have experienced. They also help us recognize why our questions are not the only ones that matter.
For example, the Nigerian theologian Byang Kato drew from ancient African theologians like Origen, Athanasius, Tertullian, and Augustine to make the clear distinction between Christianity and western culture. “It is God’s will that Africans, on accepting Christ as their Savior, become Christian Africans.” Questions about “polygamy, family life, the spirit world, tribes, and communities” were to be evaluated through the lens of Scripture and not the Western missionary. Similarly, the Indian mystic Sundar Singh stated boldly that, “Indians need the Water of Life, but not the European cup.”
Or consider V.S. Azariah, the first Indian bishop in the Anglican Church. His theology and location in southeastern India led to an important emphasis on the Lord’s Supper. While most denominations were separated according to caste, Bishop Azariah believed communion must lead to increased fellowship across the caste system. About communion he wrote, “And this creates in us a dependence upon another and a humility that are the prerequisites of any growth in the spiritual life.”
Would it benefit our churches to be aware of these individuals and the questions and contexts that formed their Christian identity? Absolutely! Both Kato and Singh provide helpful cautions to our missionary endeavors. While I can never set aside my white, Western, male identity, I certainly can grow in my awareness of questions and issues the Gospel addresses outside of my own cultural context.
Bishop Azariah has something more to say to American Christians. His biography made me wonder why the Lord’s Supper hasn’t provided avenues for repentance and reconciliation in America, a country that has known racial division since the beginning. Might the segregated American church have benefited from the experience of believers in India, including a view of the Lord’s Supper that leads to greater unity?
Our current conversations and arguments about hell matter, but so do the thousands of passionate questions and experiences of Christians outside our shrinking Western, Evangelical bubble. Will we grow in our capacity to engage in these conversations, to learn from those who love Christ and his Gospel as much as we do? Clouds of Witnesses is a book for our time and it deserves a wide reading by those looking to a Savior big enough for all of our questions.