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Belonging, believing

Chronicle of a faith which doubles as a history of the world in the past century



B r i a n S t a n l e y C H R I S T I A N I T Y I N T H E T W E N T I E T H C E N T U R Y

A world history

504pp. Princeton University Press. £27 (US $35).

978 0 691 15710 8

Right at the end of Brian Stanley’s heroic portrait of a century of religious history, I was brought up with a start by the fifth name in a list of cities where migrant churches from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have transformed the Christian landscape: London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris and Kyiv – Kyiv? Who knew? The inclusion of Kyiv provokes thoughts as to how this cosmopolitanism might figure in the Putin regime’s hatred and fear of independent Ukraine, when one considers current Orthodox Christian repression of rival religious groups in the Russian Republic, and in the Central Asian republics the copycat repression of unofficial religion, from Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses to unlicensed mosques.

A virtue of Stanley’s book is that it is stocked with illuminating surprises like the appearance of Kyiv. Parts of this history are within the memory of most of his readers, yet few will have a sense of the totality he surveys. Having attempted to tell the twentieth-century story (though in a hundred pages to Stanley’s 350), I can testify how daunting the task is, for two contradictory reasons. On the one hand, the settings of Christianity grow ever more multifarious, and Christian identities more numerous – there are currently 215 different denominations of Korean Presbyterianism, for instance, before ever you survey the rest of Korea’s Christianity. Contrariwise, everything is interconnected, thanks to two centuries of revolution in transport (the Emperor Napoleon could travel no faster than the Emperor Augustus) and after that a revolution in communications, leading off from the telegraph and telephone. The internet does not merit an entry in Stanley’s index, yet it has changed everything.

Perhaps Stanley will counter that at the technical end of his period, 2000, the internet was not what it has become eighteen years later. That exempts him from following up some of the remarkable changes of the past two decades, and from inevitable obsolescence in the last pages of any account running to the present day. Centuries are arbitrary constructions, and Stanley makes some disapproving remarks about the historiographical consequences of taking the “long nineteenth century”, 1789–1914, as a unit of time. There is an undoubted convenience in his policy of making 1900 to 2000 his frame of reference, rather than beginning a similarly skewed “twentieth century”, 1914 to now. It means that for the early stages of his account, he can rightly point out that however dramatic the effect of the First World War, often it simply exacerbated trends already in motion. A case in point is the almost two-century-long enthusiasm of evangelical Christians for the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, though a crucial turning point did indeed occur during the First World War: 1917, when General Allenby’s British expeditionary force entered Jerusalem and the Balfour Declaration set up disastrous ambiguities on the future of Palestine.

It is difficult to write the history of twentieth-century Christianity without its degenerating into a general history of the world. In 1900 empires based on Christian culture, mostly European but including the United States and successor-states of the old Iberian empires in South and Central America, formally or informally controlled virtually the entire globe. Japan and Tibet were genuine exceptions; otherwise Ethiopia (Abyssinia at the time) had also resisted colonial absorption, but boasted its own independent and idiosyncratic version of Christianity. The two world wars, the first genuinely planet-embracing wars, both started as intra-European fights. Still in 2000-plus, Western culture is all-pervasive (the internet again), and however much many Christians disapprove of modern Western culture, its historic roots in Christianity are undeniable. Stanley notes that the three nineteenthcentury volumes in Kenneth Scott Latourette’s monumental and frankly rather turgid History of the Expansion of Christianity (seven volumes, 1938–47) were boldly given the collective title “The Great Century”. The twentieth

Bar Beach, Lagos, 2003

century might be thought greater still in Christian expansion, in terms of impact or reaction. Statistically not so: the general picture is reflected in the World Christian Database’s meticulous and of course ridiculously overprecise estimate that in 1900, the proportion of Christians in the human population was 34.46 per cent, and by 2005 it had declined to 32.65 per cent. That still involves the lives, loves, hopes, fears, laughter and tears, of a third of the human race.

The architecture of Stanley’s account provides a satisfying solution to the various dilemmas. He eschews a single narrative; instead he offers fifteen chapters not only each thematic, but pairing two situations exemplifying those themes, in similarity or contrast. So Christianity’s relationship to nationalism is explored in relation to Korea and Poland; ethnic hatred through Germany and Rwanda; mass conversion movements via West Africa and Melanesia; the effects on the US of largescale migration by African Americans or Jamaicans contrasted with Chinese immigration. The device is remarkably effective, though it does amount to accumulated thick description, with a sensible conclusion of no more than ten pages. Some readers might have appreciated a timeline; others may rely on their general knowledge.

The lesson of the pairings is that despite global connectivity, context is all. South American liberation theology, for instance, has come to focus on the Exodus as a controlling image: Moses leading God’s people to freedom. Joseph Ratzinger in his pre-papal days seized on this as a distortion of Christian priorities: making the Exodus into “a central image of the history of salvation” detracted from the death and resurrection of Christ. That critique has its merits, though Ratzinger’s campaign as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith targeted not merely liberation theology but liberation theologians, and descended into what some might consider personal vindictiveness. Stanley points out the contrast in the variety of liberation theology crafted by Palestinian Christians, under constant pressure from the consequences of creating the State of Israel in 1948. The last thing they wanted was the image of the Exodus: it had become part of the moral justification for the regime that was marginalizing them. In fact in Palestinian Christianity’s more extreme moods of anger at its dire situation, the whole of the Old Testament itself seemed suspect. Such an attitude had last been common in Christianity in the second century, when the intellectual Marcion gained considerable sympathy for his attempt to separate out the God of Jesus Christ from the God of the Old Testament, whom he regarded as vengeful and obsessed by laying down arbitrary rules for suffering humanity.

Alas, in the twentieth century, this rejection of the Old Testament re-emerged in a very different context from Palestine: Nazi Germany, where Hitler’s demonic development of traditional Christian anti-Semitism revived Christianity’s embarrassment that the first part of its sacred literature had been filched from one of its great rivals among world religions.

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