The faith and church founded by Jesus Christ not only is global in its reach, but is intertwined with the histories of the various continents. These facts are borne out by Martin Marty’s brief but insightful book, The Christian World.
A career scholar—the center for advanced religious studies at the University of Chicago is named for him—Marty nonetheless distills his academic knowledge into a work aimed at general readers perhaps not so familiar with Christianity’s wide reach.
Marty organizes The Christian World by geographical “episodes,” with Old World continents rating histories for both the ancient and modern eras. The Americas, sadly, merit only a single episode apiece.
Thus it is readers are reminded that though Christianity often is associated primarily with Europe and North America, it was founded in the Middle East and had some of its early orthodoxies forged by leaders in Africa.
This, again, is the strength of Marty’s work: He points out that when the church is developed as a true manifestation of Christ’s gospel, it cannot be characterized as belonging solely to a particular culture, society, or people.
Consequently, Marty’s history contains what are probably surprises to many Western readers.
He recounts, for example, how the Christian church still worshiping in Ethiopia traces its founding to the time of the apostles. Asia, as well, has never been fully devoid of adherents to Christ, though missionary efforts such as those by Jesuits in 1600s Japan have often been countered by severe persecution.
Even in Latin America, where conquistadors imposed Roman Catholicism on the natives as part of a scheme to reduce them to near chattel, the unexpected could develop. Marty recalls in particular the reformer Bartolome de Las Casas, who argued for humane treatment of the Indians not merely as fellow human beings, but as brothers in Christ.
Marty writes of de Las Casas: “As protector, he made it a point to identify with the poor, in whom he saw Jesus Christ, while making enemies when he gave publicity in Europe to the atrocities perpetrated by his fellow Spaniards.”
Unfortunately, as a writer aligned with mainstream academia, Marty also seems obliged to echo familiar criticisms of the church. He repeats in particular the allegation that missionaries during the period of Western colonialism were racist, patronizing, and in league with imperialists. Yet he also points out that “letters, writings, and sermons suggest that for most of the missionaries, regard for the souls of the unconverted was the moving force.”
Indeed, what one gleans most from Marty’s brief history is that Christ’s church flourishes mainly when it is proclaimed by those who aren’t necessarily in step with the establishment.
Thus, as the twenty-first century unfolds we see Christianity growing in unlikely ways in unlikely places: in the underground house church movement of Communist China, through the preaching of indigenous pastors in sub-Saharan Africa, through the passionate worship style of the more ebullient Protestant sects in Latin America.
Of these latter Pentecostals and evangelicals Marty issues a remarkable observation, one that serves to illustrate why regardless of the course of history, the true Church can never fail. “These Christians,” he writes, “continue to meet needs that others do not. Almost obsessive is their stress on the Jesus of the gospel stories as a human among them—and Jesus as the Christ, the exalted Lord among them and within them.”
We might add: This is precisely what Jesus told his followers to go into all the world and do.