Christianity Encountering World Religions | Book Review

In Christianity Encountering World Religions, Terry Muck and Frances S. Adeney provide an “explanation of and argument for giftive mission” (7). They state their thesis up front:

Mission to peoples of historically resistant religions [i.e., non-Christian religions] could be made easier and more productive with the addition of a biblical metaphor for mission, the metaphor of free gift. Giftive mission, as we choose to call it, means that we are more than conquerors of other people, more than harvesters of souls, more than winners of metaphysical arguments: we are the bearers of gifts. We bring to the world the greatest of all gifts, the story of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ (10).

They organize their presentation of giftive mission in four parts:

Part 1 treats the context, text, and pre-texts of contemporary missions. The first is “the religiously plural context in which Christianity exists today” (15). Text is what the Bible says “about our responsibility toward people of other religions” (32). And pre-texts are “[c]ategories of thought, ways of learning, and personal idiosyncrasies” (51).

Part 2 identifies 11 practices that characterize giftive mission. For each practice, Muck and Adeney profile a Christian leader whose ministry embodied that practice, as well as a sidebar of an “antimissionary” whose work was counterproductive to genuine mission. Because Part 2 is the longest section of the book, it is worth naming and briefly describing each practice, together with its characteristic missionary and antimissionary:

  1. Universality: Reaching out to all, including Christians, with Paul as missionary and Jonah as antimissionary (79–91).
  2. Fellowship: Belonging precedes believing, with St. Patrick contrasted to Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (92–103).
  3. Localization: Focusing on questions and concerns of the local community, with the translation work of Cyril and Methodius contrasted to Bishop Wiching’s limitation of Bible translation and liturgy to Latin (104–114).
  4. Commitment: Holding ideas with conviction; acting decisively on those ideas; not letting those ideas be decisive, with Thomas Aquinas contrasted to Pope Innocent IV (115–126).
  5. Freedom: Honoring the principle of religious choice, with Bartolomé de Las Casas contrasted with Louis IX’s crusades and expulsion of Jews from France (127–137).
  6. Effectiveness: Allowing the context to determine the form of witness, contrasting Matteo Ricci with Pierre-Jean de Smet (138–149).
  7. Consistency: Striving for consistency between methods and goals, contrasting William Carey with Tomás de Torquemada (150–161).
  8. Variety: Communicating the gospel in many forms, with Catherine Booth contrasted to John Ryland (162–173).
  9. Respect: Not disparaging others in order to champion your own; not disparaging your own in order to respect others, contrasting William Sheppard with David de Silva (174–184).
  10. Charity: Loving those to whom we witness, contrasting Mother Teresa with King Richard the Lion-Hearted (185–197).
  11. Missional Ecumenicity: Practicing mission as the joint project of the church. Muck and Adeney present Billy Graham as the exemplar of this characteristic, but they do not name an antimissionary (198–209).

The authors conclude Part 2 with a chapter titled, “Jesus, Mission Innovator,” in which they provide this summary of his mission innovation:

Yet part of Jesus’ mission innovation was to make love of neighbor the standard against which all mission workers were to measure their successes and failures. And part of Jesus’ mission innovation was to define what Christian love was over against human love. Christian love begins with a love of God; love of our neighbor is then a reflection of that primary love relationship. Christian love is Christian because it is rooted in the love of God (215).

Part 3 describes a five-stage “spiral of knowledge acquisition” about other cultures, which is essential to the task of cross-cultural workers. These stages are 1) recognizing and understanding our past experience, 2) bracketing our convictions, 3) encountering others with openness, 4) evaluating through reengaging one’s convictions, and 5) integrating our horizon of meaning (224–229). This is not a one-and-done acquisition of knowledge; instead, it is a spiral that continues to broaden and deepen.

Regarding the fifth stage, Muck and Adeney note that “change occurs both in the people of the other culture who interact with the missionaries and in the Christians relating to the culture.” On the one hand, “The people are influence by the story of Jesus as it is related to them in culturally appropriate ways.” On the other hand, “The Christians are also changed by the character and forms of the culture they encounter” (227).

Part 4, finally, makes the case for giftive mission explicit. Noting that there are numerous biblical metaphors and metaphor clusters for mission activity (e.g., agricultural, military, architectural, athletic, economic), Muck and Adeney argue that “free gift” is an especially fruitful metaphor for contemporary missions for several reasons: It is biblical, it is universal, and it has local variations. They consider how giftive mission might vary in indigenous, Western, and Eastern gift-giving cultures.

An appendix helpful lists 239 “Biblical Interreligious Encounters” that are useful to readers who want to examine the biblical material for themselves.

On the whole, I thought Christianity Encounter World Religions was well written and persuasive. The 11 practices the authors identified, along with positive and negative examples of each, were helpful, especially to readers such as myself who are enmeshed in the pluralism and relativism of contemporary globalized culture. The interplay between the mission Jesus gave the Church and the world in which that mission takes place requires a frank recognition of both “competition” between Christianity and other religions, at the same time it necessitates “cooperation” with them (28–31).

Book Reviewed
Terry Muck and Frances S. Adeney, Christianity Encountering World Religions: The Practice of Mission in the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

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