- Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion: Two Thousand Years of Christian Missions in the Middle East by Eleanor H. Tejirian and Reeva Spector Simon
Recounting the history of Western Christian missions in the Middle East over the last 2000 years is an almost impossible task. The authors of this monograph, Eleanor Tejirian and Reeva Spector Simon, are to be praised for their attempt to do so. In little more than 200 pages, its readers become acquainted with the conflicted history of Western Christian involvement in the region that gave birth to Christianity and nourished its early expansion. The authors focus on the interconnections between mostly institutional missions and political engagements [End Page 891] with the region, teasing out when and how (mostly Western) missions were or were not part of crusading, colonial, imperialist, or postcolonial movements and how missions, once in the region, became an inextricable part of the further life and development of the region, especially via their focus on education and humanitarianism. In many ways, the book reminds one of Kenneth Scott Latourette’s seven-volume overview The Expansion of Christianity (New York, 1937–45), with its factual emphasis and wish to include the breadth of Christian expansion—this time in one brief volume and restricted to the Middle East.
Like Latourette (although without his optimistic outlook), the authors chose to emphasize the relationship among conflict, conquest, and mission: Christianity’s spread in the Middle East more often than not took place in periods of violent and unequal engagement between Europe and the region. However, more so than with Latourette, this leads to a disproportionate attention to the long nineteenth century. It also leads to what seems an overemphasis of the nineteenth-century Protestant American contribution, however important that certainly was. Given the focus on the nineteenth century, Catholic missions after 1800 would have deserved more detailed treatment (perhaps by referencing French, Italian, and German scholarship), as should the Evangelical, “Faith,” and Pentecostal missions of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
That being said, the volume is a valuable introduction to the fascinating and conflicted history of the Christian missions in the Middle East, especially for those with some basic knowledge of Middle Eastern history and religious history more generally. For those wanting to dig deeper, the volume provides a first introduction to the rich scholarly literature on the subject. For all of these periods, but certainly so for the post-1500 period, missionary scholarship has made great strides in the past three decades, taking into account both the advances in the study of the Ottoman Empire (discussions about the so-called “millet-system,” to mention just one important issue relating to the position of Christians and Christian missions), in the study of religion (what was the nature of the exchange between Eastern Christians and Western missionaries of all kinds?), and in understanding the relationship among mission, colonialism, and humanitarianism. It seems a pity that, perhaps with a view toward a general readership, the volume tends to gloss over the sophisticated conceptual and theoretical debates about what so obliquely is called “mission” underlying works such as those of Ussama Makdisi, Paul Sedra, and Heather Sharkey (all referenced in the volume).