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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"From Every Tribe and Nation" (Mark A. Noll)

TITLE: From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian's Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity)
AUTHOR: Mark A. Noll
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (224 pages).

This book is a memoir of Mark Noll, a highly regarded Church historian who works as a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame. Famous for books like “Turning Points,” and “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” Noll changes his usual tack to take this book along a different direction, to story his own journey in learning the history of Christianity. For the first time, Noll invites us along his memoir-like book to show us the various landmarks of Christianity from every tribe and nation. In this manner, Noll reminds us that history is not something cut prim and proper for modern analysis. It is not a three-pointer or some systematic structure to understand. History as much as possible needs to be understood according to their original contexts. The best that modern interpreters can do is to tell it honestly from their perspective of the origins, without being dogmatic about it. In doing so, Noll is attempting to bridge experience and facts, objectively and subjectivity, and most importantly, to tell his own story and at the same time share about his understanding of the historical contexts he had learned. His conviction in this book as as follows: “If the people of God come from every tribe and nation, so then should a history of the people of God try to take in every tribe and nation.

He goes all the way back to the Church he first grew up in, at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he had early exposure to missionaries and cross cultural missions. His interest in world Christianity was sparked by a “simple awareness,” the workings of cross-cultural communications, and the missionary fervor from his Church. He shares about the way the Reformation “rescued” him intellectually, theologically, and existentially. He is convinced that Christianity cannot be simplified into moral matters, proper beliefs, or conversion talk. Through the teachings of the Great Reformer, Martin Luther, he learns the message of faith and grace. Cross-cultural interactions enable him to realize that Christianity is done quite differently outside North America.

In academic circles, his “first teachers” at Wheaton included Arthur Holmes, Clyde Kilby, Frank Bellinger, and Robert Warburton. At Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, he appreciated David Wells’s insights into contextual Christianity. Slowly, he made his way through teaching stints at Trinity College, Vanderbilt, Regent College, and others. He tells of two forces that shaped his authorship. The “Reformed Journal” influenced his need for greater cultural awareness beyond the American landscape. The second was Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), which provided a window to world Christianity.

He reveals his struggle between family-marriage responsibilities and his scholar-teacher ambitions. He confesses how the creeds and ancient dogmas have changed his perception of faith, just like how he admired David Wells’s unapologetic use of tradition and dogmas of faith. The best hymns can be used to teach theology and doctrine. Then there is the Lord’s Supper and Canadian learning experience where he appreciated George Rawlyk’s more human dimension to Christianity, in contrast to academic perspectives he had been exposed to. The Canadian political contexts influenced the shape of Christianity. Canadian culture tends to be more “organic, traditional, statist, and hierarchical” while Americans tend to be “more free, democratic, local, and individualistic.” Again, these are to be understood at a relative scale, for I know Canadians would protest at some of this caricatures, especially “hierarchical.” Exploring Eastern Europe, Noll discovers how churches labor under the heavy hand of communism and the constraints Church leaders there had to cope with. He was particularly struck by the churches’ hunger for theological instructions. He learns from Andrew Walls’s insights on how entry into new regions shaped Christian theology. He sees an important bridge between missiology and history. He even shares about his teaching experience and compares the differences between students at Wheaton, Notre Dame, and Regent College.

The second half of the book covers his interactions with Christianity down Latin America and Asia. The contextual flavor in Latin America is more Catholic and has strong leanings toward a "social-cultural unity" compared to North America which is more "Protestant," "Dissenting," and voluntary. Curiously, Noll lumps his discussions on India, Korea, Japan, and China under the chapter title, "China Watching." The content is unfortunately brief, considering the rising economic prowess of the world's most populous nation.

Gradually, he admits that he needs to avoid taking his own view of Christianity as “normative” but to remain open to various contexts that are more deserving of that title. Readers will see the background behind Noll’s decision to move from Wheaton to the University of Notre Dame; Catholic-Protestant cooperation efforts, and his optimism about doing history better with world Christianity. His last chapter offers a brief statement about many events at various countries. Sometimes, I feel that Noll has become overly ambitious to try to cover every tribe and nation that toward the end, he is limited to passing statements about various countries and scattered events. Noll has made a good start and his contextual understanding of history is an excellent thought. The downside of this book is that there is simply too many to cover, and fails to do sufficient justice to the title.

Here are my further comments. If Churches in China are fuller than those in Europe, more worshipers in Africa than in North America, more missionaries from the Southern hemisphere than the Christian West, why are there not more materials to tell us more about that? Why do most literature and publications related to the declining Church in the West than the rising Church in many countries in the developing world? Should we not learn more from Asia, Africa, and South America? Why aren't more of us waking up to the reality of the new world? Why is the history of Christianity so skewed to the European rendition, especially when Christianity is meant for the world at large? These questions are dealt with or touched upon by Noll. More Church historians ought to pay attention to Christianity outside the Western hemisphere. Why? Simple. Like the title of the book, the biblical book of Revelation inspires as follows:
"You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth." (Rev. 5:9–10)

May more historians take Noll's lead. My main gripe is that the book's title suggests so much, but Noll's offering only manages to scratch the surface of it. In order to avoid misleading readers, perhaps, the words "a personal memoir" ought to be included somewhere on the title page. That said, it is always nice to read more about the background of Noll's life and his excellent work done.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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