Crossing Cultural Frontiers

Studies in the History of World Christianity

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Andrew F. Walls
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , October
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982581.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With his trademark wit, Andrew F. Walls—a pioneering historian of African Christianity, missions, and global Christianity—alerts readers that his newest volume is much like his well-known “The Missionary Movement in Christian History” (The Journal of Theological Studies, 1996). A “ragbag” collection of Walls-authored articles since 1970, Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Studies in the History of World Christianity represents a rangy compilation of essays meant for reflection and evaluation of “world Christianity” (ix).

Walls’ fundamental assertion will be familiar to students and scholars in the field. Though the church is thoroughly (and historically) global in character and has developed striking maturity in unexpected places, Western commentators still struggle to shed their outdated models and presumptions concerning the “who” and “where” of Christianity. Framing its array of articles as an examination of Christianity’s enduring cultural mobility, Walls reminds us that such a discussion is especially important given contemporary demographic trends. As African, Asian, and Latin American countries have increasingly laid claim to theological leadership and general majority since the dawn of the 20th century, Crossing Cultural Frontiers takes as its central focus the various examples of Christianity’s historical polyvocality and geographical flexibility (ix).

Through eighteen chapters spread across three parts—“The Transmission of Christian Faith,” “Africa in Christian Thought and History,” and “The Missionary Movement in the West”—this volume explores a number of themes in global Christianity and showcases Walls’ exceptional reach. Utilizing English- and non-English-speaking sources between the 2nd to the  21st centuries, we are reminded that throughout his career Walls has proven himself able to produce developed, thoughtful, and rigorous essays on early Christian writers, epistemology, 18th-century Atlantic evangelicals, African church history, and the historiography of world Christianity. And, impressively, he more often than not uses this erudition and breadth to convincingly display Christianity’s persistent elision of cultural or imperial captivity.

Readers will immediately notice how Crossing Cultural Frontiers follows numerous strands and, in the process, often speaks to an array of audiences with various interests. In one chapter Walls shows how, in the 2nd century, Origen “implanted Christian thinking in Greek intellectual soil,” while in another chapter he details how, in the 18th century, John and Charles Wesley’s dissatisfaction with traditional, parish-bound religion effected deep challenge toward European confinement of Christianity (27, 173–74). In other sections, as in the fourth  and concluding chapters, he deftly illustrates how multiple centuries of migration—from people in the global North and South—both cemented and dismantled European Christendom, eventually turning Christianity into a “principally non-Western religion” (50–51, 262).

In more conceptual essays, such as the third chapter’s focus on “worldviews,” Walls sensitively discusses Christian missions and competition between epistemologies. Urging us to think in terms of mutation rather than absolute breakage, he explains how Christian conversion never entails wholesale exchange of perspectives. Rather, people more often revise their existing epistemic “maps” to incorporate and interpret the driving convictions that spurred their new religious commitments (45–47). In all, readers will find Crossing Cultural Frontiers to be engaging in prose, research, and conversation.

Each of the volume’s already published articles are certainly useful for anyone with an interest in Christian history. What is most interesting about this book, however, is Walls’ theological framing of “world Christianity.” While this particular reviewer takes no issue with many of the volume’s theological underpinnings (some explicit, others implicit), it is clear that Walls takes “true Christianity” and “world Christianity” to be synonymous with one another. In other words, “real” Christianity is essentially warm and welcoming to all—regardless of race, class, station, or cultural background. To Walls, history and theology have shown a Christianity that is on the move, diverse, and unyoked to any one place, culture, or social stratum. As he puts it in the book’s conclusion, modern Christians—in light of the religion’s massive southern migration—have the chance to embrace change and “cohere, live, and learn together, all functioning as necessary organs in the body of Christ” (263). This is what it will look like, he writes, for believers to “return to the cultural comprehensiveness of the New Testament Church” (263). In my view, such propositions are not troubling or invalid because of their clear theological messaging.

However, Walls’ line of thinking does imply that genuine Christianity cannot be imperial and that any authentic Christian cannot be a colonizer. It suggests that any group that has hegemonized, enslaved, and abused other populations was not really Christian. Because of this, readers may be left wondering what “world Christianity” entails beyond the study of majority world believers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tucker Adkins is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
March 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew F. Walls is a former missionary to Sierra Leone and honorary professor in the University of Edinburgh; professor of the history of mission, Liverpool Hope University; and emeritus professor, Akrofi-Christaller Institute, Akropong, Ghana. His books include The Missionary Movement in Christian History, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, and (with Cathy Ross), Mission in the 21st Century (all Orbis Books).

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