Philip Jenkins Reviews ‘Christianity in the Twentieth Century: a World History’ (The Princeton History of Christianity) by Brian Stanley

A reader might well approach Brian Stanley’s Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History with a mix of intrigue and skepticism. How on earth, we might ask, can even the most skilled writer incorporate every major theme and movement, every key thinker and theological debate, in this action-packed era? How many thousands of pages would such a vaultingly ambitious project demand? How could such a book offer a proper and equitable balance between the worlds of Old and New Christendom? How dare any author even attempt such a thing?

In fact, Stanley’s book is a triumph, above all for its highly innovative structure. Indeed, that structure alone is exceptionally valuable both to readers and as a model for educators seeking to frame the ever-expanding Christian story worldwide. Of course (we are relieved to learn) Stanley is not offering any kind of exhaustive and exhausting encyclopedia of Faith, the Universe and Everything. Rather, he selects 15 critical themes in Christian history and explores how many different kinds of Christians have responded to social, cultural, and political issues. In each case, he illustrates his theme substantially with two geographical case studies, with an obvious emphasis on regions he knows particularly well. Even if the final product is not truly comprehensive, it certainly offers a very wide basis for future thought and reading.

Surprising Examples

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of trends in modern Christianity will have opinions about what Stanley’s 15 key themes should be. We might disagree with the exact contents of his list, but few would question the reasonableness of including, for instance, “uneasy marriages between Christianity and nationalism”; the persecution of churches in different societies; ecumenism; the dilemmas of living as a Christian under Islamic rule; human rights, gender, and sexuality; the role of migrant churches; or the relationship between Christianity, ethnic hatred, and genocide.

But if the topics to some extent select themselves, Stanley then startles with his choice of specific examples. Yes, we know that Christians in different eras have exalted the notion of “Holy Nations,” but how many authors would think to examine this approach with a comparative study of Protestant nationalism in South Korea and Marian Catholic nationalism in Poland? Or to compare the churches’ response to genocide in Nazi Germany and Rwanda? One might easily point to the fundamental cultural differences between the nations placed under the microscope, especially when Catholic and Protestant traditions are juxtaposed. But overriding those forms of diversity is one key question. Each of these churches, sects, or movements claims to be Christian, regardless of its location and historical circumstances. So what exactly is the identifiable core of that Christian belief or understanding? How malleable is it?

Another strength of Stanley’s book is the serious attention paid to a wide diversity of traditions and denominations. A generation or so ago, a book giving adequate and fair coverage to both Catholics and (mainline) Protestants was laudable. Stanley certainly treats those two fully, but over and above that he offers a chapter on the Orthodox tradition, as viewed in the cases of Greece, Turkey, and even East Africa. Given his interest in Global South religion, he is very informative on Pentecostal worlds, as well as the African independent traditions represented by the Aladura and other healing churches.

Beyond offering comparisons, Stanley seeks to draw lessons of wider application, and in most cases, his conclusions are perceptive and useful. In neither Germany nor Rwanda, for instance, were churches directly responsible for undertaking genocide or stirring hatred, but in both cases, it is difficult to imagine that the mass slaughter could have occurred without their actions, either positive or negative. He makes the alarming but justified suggestion that in both cases, what cursed the churches was not ignoring the cause of justice or the prophetic Christian message but drawing precisely on that rhetoric to justify outrageous acts of criminality. Without a powerful sense of the presence of sin in society, calls for justice and liberation are all too likely to lead to demands for “justice” as envisioned by my particular community, my tribe, my race.

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Source: Christianity Today