- Trading in Faith:Christianity and Globalization?
Over the past half century, Christian numbers have boomed spectacularly outside the Euro-American West. Growth in Africa has [End Page 253] been particularly impressive, and by the middle of the present century, that continent should be home to over a billion Christians, over a third of the global total. Latin America and Asia too will see historic expansion. In a fairly short historical period, the center of gravity of that faith has decisively moved to the Global South. Inevitably, such a shift has transformed the way we write the history of Christianity, which can no longer be portrayed as a religion destined from the beginning to flourish in Europe, from which missions could eventually be dispatched into the darker corners of the globe. Any worthwhile history of Christianity must of necessity be global, and must stress that character from the earliest era. We are fortunate to live in an age when such global histories of the religion are such a prolific genre. The three books reviewed here take very different eras and methodologies, but each in its way represents a stark contrast with the older Europecentered accounts.
In a sense, Christianity does not have a center, and never has. That does not mean a moral or theological center, but rather a permanent geographical core. Islam does have such a core: Islam spread out from Arabia, and never lost that base. Over time, particular territories might be lost to the world of Islam, but the core endured. Christianity is different. A faith born in Palestine soon developed its greatest strength outside that land, and Palestine itself became marginal. Over the centuries, Christianity might have possessed a cultural and political heart in a particular region, but cores have come and gone: the core of one era might be the periphery of another, and vice versa. In a sense, globalization has always been a central reality of Christian history. That geographical transience has applied to cultural and intellectual life as well as political power. As late historian Lamin Sanneh rightly observed, the original language of Christianity is translation.
That approach shapes how we tell the story of the earliest Christian centuries, and how we visualize that tale. Put crudely, historians all too often take present realities, and back project them into early times. Though maps rarely lie, in the sense of cartographers presenting data they know to be false, the way we choose to visualize information can give a radically distorted impression of reality. When we think about the spread of Christianity, we commonly use maps focused on Europe and the Mediterranean, as we know intuitively that this was the scene of the most intense and important activity. The message offered is that beyond the colored margins of those Western centered maps, Christianity never existed, or at least never mattered. Our maps of Christian growth don't include South America, because it is irrelevant [End Page 254] to the story before 1492; by the same token, why should we include Asia or Africa?
Such an approach would be wildly inaccurate. For the first millennium or so of Christian history, the faith was truly tricontinental, and it is a lively question when Christian numbers in Europe actually outpaced those in Asia: not, probably, before the ninth or tenth century. Throughout that era, Christianity had four key languages for thought and debate, namely Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Latin. In terms of the geographical area influenced by the various cultures, the Syriac-speaking churches would certainly claim pre-eminence, with their deep penetration of the Central Asian trade routes, and their early outreach to China. We may never know the exact year when a Christian believer actually...