Review of ‘The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History’ by Andrew F. Walls


the-cross-cultural-processWalls, Andrew F. 2002. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a collection of essays, originally published independently, which Andrew F. Walls has organized into three parts. Part One consists of four studies of “recurrent themes of Christian history, and of Christian historiography, viewed intercontinentally.” Parts Two and Three consist of eleven studies of “the transmission and appropriation of the Christian faith” in “Africa” and “the modern missionary movement from the West,” respectively (p. ix). Because of the wide-ranging nature of the book’s interests, it is difficult to review it as a whole. So, instead, this review will focus on the themes in three chapters.

Chapter 1, “A History of the Expansion of Christianity Reconsidered,” reviews the contribution of Kenneth Scott Latourette’s magisterial, seven-volume history of missions of that title. Latourette famously described the history of Christianity’s expansion in “the spread of the influence of Jesus.” He went on to propose what Walls calls “a threefold means for measuring the influence of Christ” (p. 9).

Walls devotes the bulk of chapter 1 to outlining and giving theological depth to Latourette’s “threefold means.” He names them “The Church Test” (p. 10), “The Kingdom Test” (p. 13), and “The Gospel Test” (p. 18). “The first sign of the expansion of the influence of Christ is the presence of a community of people who willingly bear his name, an ‘Israel’ that maintains his worship. The other tests themselves presuppose this one…” (p. 10). The second test regards “the numbers and strength of new movements owing their origin to Jesus Christ,” which was Latourette’s means of testing “the depth of Christian expansion at any one time in any given area” (p. 14, emphasis in original). “Kingdom movements,” writes Walls, “call the church to repentance and to alertness to the presence of Christ within,” and are thus inclusive of “many movements of reformation, renewal, and revival” (p. 15). The third test pertains to “the effect of Christ on people and on cultures,” an effect that varies in different times and places because the “scope of the principalities and powers and their corrupting rule is immense” (pp. 18, 19). An obvious example of this is the difference between the guilt-innocence cultures and honor-shame cultures hear the gospel.

Chapter 3, “From Christendom to World Christianity,” highlights the serial nature of Christian expansion. In two paragraphs that repay careful attention, Walls writes:

…The Christian story is serial: its center moves from place to place. No one church or place or culture owns it. At different times, different peoples and places have become its heartlands, its chief representatives. Then the baton passes on to others. Christian progress is never final, never a set of gains to be plotted on the map. The rhetoric of some of our hymns, and many of our sermons, about the triumphant host streaming out to conquer the world is more Islamic than Christian [!]. Christian history reveals the faith often withering in its heartlands, in its centers of seeming strength and importance, to establish itself on or beyond its margins. It has vulnerability, a certain fragility, at its heart—the vulnerability of the cross, the fragility of the earthen vessel

In other words, cross-cultural diffusion has been necessary to Christianity. It has been its life’s blood, and without it the faith could not have survived. It does not, like so many of the religions of India, belong to a particular soil; nor does it, like Islam, produce a distinctive and immediately recognisable [sic] form of civilization. The missionary movement from the West, therefore, seen in the total history of Christianity, is one of a series of major cross-cultural diffusions…” (pp. 66–67).

To the extent that the book’s fifteen independent chapters have a unifying theme, this is it. Christianity expands on a serial basis through cross-cultural processes. One can never assume its triumph in history; one must always be incarnating the faith once delivered to new contexts.

Chapter 13, “The Multiple Conversions of Timothy Richard,” examines the missiological shifts made by Richard, a Welsh Baptist missionary to China, over the course of his tenure there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Walls makes two points: First, these shifts took place in response to changing conditions in China. Walls writes:

[Richard’s] multiple conversions—from conventional [British] evangelism to methods that took China seriously, to famine relief work, to prophet of structural reform, to theologian or religions, to worker for peace and champion of the submerged tenth—mark stages that marked the wider movement in different parts of the world and at different periods (p. 258).

Richard,’ experience, in other words, was “paradigmatic…of the instincts of the missionary movement at work.” These instincts were additive rather than subtractive, however, “never abandoning its original position [of evangelism] but clearing space around it in response to developing perspectives” (p. 258). In other words, a mission that began with the goal of saving souls had to, in response to changing circumstances, take cognizance of the physical, social, and ideological elements impinged on would-be converts’ lived experience. Only in this way could the fullness of Christ’s kingdom be experienced.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a rich, suggestive work that needs to be read several times to fully digest its significance. This review has highlighted three chapters only because they identify themes that recur throughout the work: the measurement of Christian influence, the serial nature of Christian expansion, and the increasing scope of missionary concern.

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Review of ‘Speaking of Homosexuality’ by Joe Dallas


SpeakingOf_Mech.inddJoe Dallas, Speaking of Homosexuality: Discussing the Issues with Kindness and Clarity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

The Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is true across a wide range of heterosexual behaviors, such as premarital sex, cohabitation and no-fault divorce. But Christians are rarely called out for their opposition to those behaviors. When it comes to homosexuality, however, the response is different. Christian opposition to homosexuality generally or same-sex marriage specifically provokes accusations of homophobia and hatred.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation, further contributes to the marginalization of the Christian sexual ethic. Same-sex marriage is now understood as a fundamental civil right, and opposition to it is likened to support for segregation in the American South during the era of Jim Crow.

How should Christians speak of homosexuality in this adverse environment?

That’s the question my friend Joe Dallas seeks to answer in his new book, Speaking of Homosexuality. Until 1984, Joe was “a staff member with a pro-gay church, an openly gay man, and an activist, identifying as a gay Christian, arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality.” Then, however, his study of Scripture convinced him that he was in error. For the last thirty years, he has ministered to others, both gay and straight, helping them to develop a biblical perspective on human sexuality. He thus brings a unique personal perspective to bear on this controversial topic.

Joe frames much of the book as a conversation between “Traditionalists” and “Revisionists.” Traditionalists advocate the “traditional view of marriage and sexuality,” namely, that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, and that outside of marriage, a person should remain celibate. Revisionists advocate “revising our view of Scripture or of morality in general to condone homosexuality.”

The first three chapters of Speaking of Homosexuality provide a “contextual overview” of the debate between Traditionalists and Revisionists. Chapter 1 argues that “knowing the context of our conversation can help us anticipate problems, adjust our approach, and stay sensitive to the perceptions and feelings of others.” Joe points out that the often acrimonious conversations between the two groups typically revolve around “presumption, politics, and the personal” (emphasis in original). Both sides, that is to say, make assumptions about the other the side that renders them “guilty of stereotyping.” Consequently, “mistrust is a frequent companion” to such conversations.

Chapter 2 identifies three goals traditionalist Christians may have when speaking of homosexuality with others: “evangelizing an unbeliever, discipling a believer in error, or simply reasoning with someone about our different views.” These goals shape the content of those conversations in different ways.

Additionally, who your conversation partner is shapes the kind of conversation you have. Joe identifies five groups in particular: “militants, mainstream, millennials, Revisionists, and friends and family.” Too often, traditionalists lump all LGBT people and their allies into the militant category. Dallas thinks this is a mistake. Rather, “most…could be described as mainstream, fellow humans and citizens with whom we have more in common than differences. And, per Jesus, they’re our neighbors, whom we’re to love and serve.” That last sentence is key, as far as I’m concerned. Too often, Traditionalists approach those on the other side of this issue as enemies to be defeated rather than as neighbors to be loved. That’s not Jesus’ way of doing things.

Chapter 3 then outlines seven guidelines to follow when speaking of homosexuality:

  1. Speak clearly.
  2. Speak appropriately.
  3. Speak empathically.
  4. Concede what’s true.
  5. Consider what’s possible.
  6. Watch the apologies.
  7. Recognize and point out diversions.

I want to hone in on numbers 3 and 4, because this is where I think my fellow Traditionalists most often go wrong. We do not empathize with the “feelings” and “experiences” of LGBT people. Consequently, we are prone to speak “irresponsible, inaccurate, contemptuous words” at or about them. “Lots of Christians have said hateful things about gays,” Dallas writes. “Lots of Christians are more upset about homosexuality than they are about adultery or fornication, even though those are condemned in the Bible.” Both statements are true. There is no virtue in denying either of them.

If chapters 1–3 address the “context” of our conversations, chapters 4–13 address their “content.” Dallas examines the “origins of homosexuality” (chapter 4), whether “change” of orientation is possible (chapter 5), whether opposition to same-sex marriage is reasonable (chapter 6), whether moral disapproval of homosexuality in and of itself constitutes “homophobia” or “hate” (chapter 7), and in what sense a person can or cannot identify as a “gay Christian” (chapter 8). Dallas’ discussion of the issues in these chapters is nuanced, which is appropriate for the complex subjects they address.

Chapters 9–13 then take up the proper interpretation of the most commonly cited biblical passages disapproving of homosexuality: Genesis 19:1–11 (chapter 9); Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 (chapter 10); Romans 1:24–27 (chapter 12); 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:9–10 (chapter 13). Chapter 11 examines what significance Jesus’ “silence” about homosexuality has for the moral debate. Dallas’ treatment of these passages is brief but competent. Like him, I find it difficult to agree with Revisionist interpretation of these passages, for the reasons that he cites.

Indeed, in my opinion, it would be more intellectually honest for Revisionists to say that these passages are wrong or irrelevant than to say that they have been misinterpreted or misapplied. In other words, there is good reason why the Traditionalist position has been the default position of the Church for the last two millennia. It is because, as the children’s gospel song says, “the Bible tells me so.” If you’re familiar with the historical arc of the Revisionist position, it begins with “The Bible has been misinterpreted” and ends with “The Bible is wrong on this matter.” That is the arc of mainline Protestant thinking on this topic. My guess is that that is where evangelical Revisionists will land eventually as well. Disagreeing with the Bible is not a place where evangelicals should want to be.

Speaking of Homosexuality is a countercultural book. As I wrote at the outset, the Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is nothing new, however, since Christianity’s sexual ethic was out of step with the culture of its own time as well. The question, then as now, is with whom—or rather, Whom—we will walk in step going forward.

I’ll conclude this review with Joe Dallas’ closing words:

A steward is rewarded for faithfulness, not outcomes. We hope greater faithfulness means greater outcomes. But ‘other things’—such as God’s and the hearer’s will—come into play. And since those factors are out of our hands, we keep those hands on the plow, striving to improve our understanding, articulation, attitudes, and faithfulness to the standards we preach. Above all, we continue seeking deeper intimacy with the Master we serve.

Speaking of homosexuality is a small part of that life commission. Our more general commission is to speak of Jesus, His teachings, His invitation, His nature, and His soon coming. Any truth we can lovingly communicate to better prepare people for eternity, binding them to Him, is critical.

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P.P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘The First Thanksgiving’ by Robert Tracy McKenzie


images Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving and God and Learning from History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

This Thanksgiving, like millions of other Americans, I will sit down with family around a beautifully decorated table to eat a sumptuous feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. We will share stories of gratitude for God’s blessings throughout the year drawing to a close. And then we will watch football or—in my case, since I’m not a sports fan—take a long, postprandial nap.

What I will not do is think that our Thanksgiving celebration has anything to do with the Pilgrim’s “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. Not after reading Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving, which is equal parts a historical account of that feast and a theologically informed reflection on how Christians should (and should not) use the past. As he tells it, we don’t know much about the “first Thanksgiving” except that it probably didn’t occur in November, wasn’t eaten indoors, didn’t include turkey (but might’ve included turnip and eel), wasn’t a multicultural love fest (evidently, the Wampanoags just showed up, uninvited), and wouldn’t have been considered a day of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the first place. Moreover, the celebration of thanksgiving days was, for the first 220 years of American history, a New England phenomenon that wasn’t explicitly linked to the Pilgrim feast of 1621.

In short, most of what you think you know about the “first Thanksgiving” is bunk. But over the years, that bunk has been found to serve a variety of useful ends, underwriting Northern abolitionism, American individualism and religious freedom, and a providential reading of America’s Christian history, among other things. And that’s why the fiction continues to be promoted instead of the facts.

To think Christianly about the Pilgrims and their 1621 feast, we need to put these fictions aside and recognize the weakness of the historical accounts that promote them. And then we need to reflect on why we study this history anyway. “The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley once wrote; “they do things differently there.” That’s certainly the case with the Puritans and their Separatist brand of Protestant Christianity. Present-day Christians share the same faith, but they do not practice it in the same way. Both the similarities and the differences play a role in how we interpret and practice our religion.

For McKenzie, one of the key things that contemporary American Christians can learn from the Pilgrims is that “we are pilgrims too.” He writes: “to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies…American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ…We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of ‘survival, success, and salvation’ rests solely on our belong to Christ, not on our identity as Americans.”

Amen, and thank God!

Now, would someone please pass me another helping of mashed potatoes?

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. InterVarsity Press posted this funny little video about the “first Thanksgiving,” based on McKenzie’s reconstruction of it.

Thanksgiving Is Good for the Soul (1 Corinthians 1:4)


Several years ago, I suffered a bout of deep depression. It lasted for months. And I don’t want to experience it ever again. But I learned something out of that depression that has proved invaluable to my mental—and spiritual—health:

Giving thanks is good for the soul.

During my depression, I kept a journal in which I monitored my feelings and their causes in minute detail. The more I analyzed my depression, the more depressed I became. So one day, I tried something different. I wrote a list of everyone and everything I was thankful for. To my surprise, it was a very long list. I can’t say my depression instantly disappeared that day, but its hold on me lost considerable purchase.

I don’t know whether Paul ever suffered depression. As we read 1 Corinthians, we’ll discover that Paul had plenty of reasons to feel deeply sad about the church in Corinth. It was a moral and theological mess. Yet Paul nevertheless gave thanks for it. His word of thanks is six verses long (1 Cor. 1:4-9), but here I want to focus only on the first verse:

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus (1:4).

Let’s take a closer look at this sentence:

I: Giving thanks cannot be delegated. It is our privilege and responsibility.

Always: Paul wasn’t thankful on good days and ungrateful on bad days. He was always thankful. You can see the constancy of his gratitude when you look at his words of thanks for other churches he wrote to (Rom. 1:8, Phil. 1:3, Col. 1:3, 1 Thes. 1:2, 2 Thes. 2:13, 1 Tim. 1:12, 2 Tim. 1:3, Philem. 4). We should be constant in our thanksgiving too.

Thank God: Paul’s thanksgiving is radically God-centered. Paul was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles by the will of God. So every time Gentiles decided to follow Jesus, Paul gave thanks to God for them. Do you thank God for others?

For you: Notice that Paul doesn’t thank God privately for the Corinthians—or for any other church. He thanks God for the Corinthians in front of the Corinthians. God knows whom you’re thankful for. Do they?

Because of his grace given you: If Paul looked only at the Corinthians’ present behaviors and beliefs, he might not have had much reason to give thanks. They were a “problem child.” But when he looked at where the Corinthians had been in comparison to where they were, he had lots of reason for gratitude. God’s grace had started them on their spiritual journey and moved them far along. Our gratitude will grow when we focus more on the progress God gives than the problems others cause.

In Christ Jesus: God’s grace is always mediated to us by Jesus Christ. Whenever you get frustrated with others, remember this: Jesus Christ loves them and gave himself for them (Eph. 5:2).

So, give thanks. It’s good for the soul: yours—and theirs!

Barack Obama’s Thanksgiving Proclamation


photo-jpgNearly 400 years ago, a small band of Pilgrims fled persecution and violence and came to this land as refugees in search of opportunity and the freedom to practice their faith. Though the journey was rough and their first winter harsh, the friendly embrace of an indigenous people, the Wampanoag — who offered gracious lessons in agriculture and crop production — led to their successful first harvest. The Pilgrims were grateful they could rely on the generosity of the Wampanoag people, without whom they would not have survived their first year in the new land, and together they celebrated this bounty with a festival that lasted for days and prompted the tradition of an annual day of giving thanks.

This history teaches us that the American instinct has never been to seek isolation in opposite corners; it is to find strength in our common creed and forge unity from our great diversity. On that very first thanksgiving celebration, these same ideals brought together people of different backgrounds and beliefs, and every year since, with enduring confidence in the power of faith, love, gratitude, and optimism, this force of unity has sustained us as a people. It has guided us through times of great challenge and change and allowed us to see ourselves in those who come to our shores in search of a safer, better future for themselves and their families.

On this holiday, we count our blessings and renew our commitment to giving back. We give thanks for our troops and our veterans — and their families — who give of themselves to protect the values we cherish; for the first responders, teachers, and engaged Americans who serve their communities; and for the chance to live in a country founded on the belief that all of us are created equal. But on this day of gratitude, we are also reminded that securing these freedoms and opportunities for all our people is an unfinished task. We must reflect on all we have been afforded while continuing the work of ensuring no one is left out or left behind because of who they are or where they come from.

For generations, our Nation’s progress has been carried forward by those who act on the obligations we have to one another. Each year on Thanksgiving, the selflessness and decency of the American people surface in food banks and shelters across our country, in time spent caring for the sick and the stranger, and in efforts to empathize with those with whom we disagree and to recognize that every individual is worthy of compassion and care. As we gather in the company of our friends, families, and communities — just as the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag did centuries ago — let us strive to lift up others, promote tolerance and inclusiveness, and give thanks for the joy and love that surround all of us.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 24, 2016, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together — whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors — and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this
twenty-third day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand sixteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-first.

BARACK OBAMA

Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation


abraham_lincolnThe year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

A. Lincoln

George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation


20131128-082951.jpg[New York, 3 October 1789]

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor–and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be–That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in thecourse and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions–to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness onto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington