Migration and the Making of Global Christianity
- ISBN: 9780802875624
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: March 2021
Jehu J. Hanciles’ Migration and the Making of Global Christianity is a tour de force bookended by a compelling and audacious claim: “every Christian migrant is a potential missionary” (1, 418). Spanning the first 1,500 years of Christian history, Hanciles bolsters his assertion by highlighting the critical role that “migrant movements and initiatives by ordinary people or nonstate actors”—among many others—played in the expansion of Christianity (221). While historiographies of world Christianity largely privilege the coordinated efforts of empires and established religious institutions, Hanciles urges readers not to overlook the longstanding contributions of migrant Christians. As this book illustrates, Christian migrants spread Christianity beyond, and often irrespective of, the regulatory influence of formalized power structures.
Divided into two main parts, Hanciles’ work begins with an overview of the conceptual frameworks that support the rest of the book. In conversation with the works of mission historians Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh, in addition to biblical sources, the first part offers a thorough introduction to topics such as translation, conversion, and mission. It sheds light on migration as a key feature of theology and human history. Although research on human mobility and Christianity generally favors a more contemporary analysis of migration, this book examines a long arc of history, revealing that “migration has been a constant feature of human existence, embedded in the complex transformations that shape our world” (14). This section joins the work of Peter C. Chan’s recent edited volume Christian Theology in the Age of Migration: Implications for World Christianity (Lexington Books, 2020), which similarly draws on themes of globalization, migration, and theology, albeit during different time periods.
The second part of the book demonstrates Hanciles’ “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” sociohistorical assessment of global Christianity. By highlighting narratives of movement and conversion among merchants in Persia, exiles and captives in Europe, and royal brides and queen mothers in Europe and Asia, Hanciles brings into view those whose experiences are often underexamined due to their relatively marginalized status in society and within historical records. As these various migrant groups carried their religious beliefs and practices to foreign lands, they often introduced communities to Christianity long before priests, bishops, and other institutional leaders migrated and established formal religious communities. While accounts of social and religious elites do loom large in this text, the attention to a range of migrant communities and cross-cultural encounters is praiseworthy.
Hanciles ultimately concludes that “the empire argument”—“the proclivity in Western scholarship for explaining major historical change, including the transregional spread of religion, in terms of state action or formal structures of political power and economic self-interest”—is a blunt instrument (269). The empire argument alone cannot account for historical transformations within Christianity when, as shown most forcefully in the book’s conclusion, imperial influence does not always guarantee the possibility or longevity of religious expansion or mass conversion. This does not mean that considerations of empire are irrelevant. Indeed, it seems that empire plays an increasingly important role over the course of the book’s ten chapters. Rather, scholars are invited to situate empire within larger contexts of human activity which necessarily includes migration.
Attempting a bottom-up approach comes with its own set of methodological challenges, which Hanciles frequently admits. Because the relevant primary source material for this period is quite sparse—and typically penned by elites—there are several places in the book that involve a level of conjecture or “disciplined imagination” in order to make a case for Christian expansion based on the actions of non-elites (6). In such moments, Hanciles turns to archeologists, migration theorists, sociologists, and others to attend to archival silences. While these gaps may be unsettling for some readers, Hanciles is not alone in his attempt to recover historical transformations within world Christianity using a multidisciplinary approach. As Martha Frederiks and Dorottya Nagy show in their recent edited volume, World Christianity: Methodological Considerations (Brill, 2021), the study of world Christianity requires a creative interdisciplinary use of sources.
Unsurprisingly, despite its broad scope, this text is not meant to be exhaustive. As such, it leaves several avenues open for further exploration. One question this work raises is: How is global Christianity not only made, but lived? Hanciles takes great pains to reveal how, over time and space, Christianity amasses increasing numbers of converts and churches. However, readers are given relatively little information regarding how Christians practiced their religion beyond their efforts to proselytize or shore up their institutional resources.
One example of this occurs in the sixth chapter of the book, which focuses on the role of Christian merchants in spreading Christianity within Persia. Here, Hanciles draws on historian Jerry Bentley’s theory of “voluntary association” to infer that practices of “sustained engagement and close collaboration” between Syrian Christian merchants and Persian non-Christian merchants “may have produced greater receptivity [among the latter] to the Christian message and ultimately opened the way to religious conversion” (260). While this theory offers one explanation for how trade communities might have prompted Christian conversion, it does not clarify what practices Syrian merchants engaged in that Persian merchants may have found appealing. Thus, one wonders how exactly a commitment to Christianity among such merchant communities translated into an embodied, experiential, and visible faith that could be recognized by others. Greater attention to visual and material culture during the period of study might have offered additional clues for understanding Christian belief and practice among migrants and converts in the making of global Christianity.
At any rate, Hanciles successfully shows that, in the context of Christianity, "the interconnection between religious expansion and human migration is inescapable and indisputable" (418). Indeed, Migration and the Making of Global Christianity will leave scholars and students of world Christianity, biblical studies, migration studies, and many other fields of inquiry with much to consider. Those who engage this historically rich text will find an insightful analysis of how migrants are active participants in and innovators of religious change.
Kimberly Akano is a PhD student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University.Kimberly AkanoDate Of Review:May 17, 2022