World Christianity

Perspectives and Insights

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Jonathan Y. Tan
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , April
     415 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


After five centuries of close association with the West, Christianity has reasserted its status as a polycentric, multilingual, and multicultural religious movement, which has, in turn, led to the rise of world Christianity as a field of study. This collection of essays is a welcome addition to a rapidly growing body of literature in this field, contributing particularly to one’s understanding of world Christianity’s impact on theological and religious studies. This is not, as the subtitle might suggest, a collection of random perspectives and insights on world Christianity. Instead, it engages thought-provoking insight by Peter Phan, one of the most influential scholars in this emerging field.

Phan’s widely known essay, “World Christianity: Its Implications for History, Religious Studies, and Theology” (2012), raised the question of the interdisciplinary impact of world Christianity. Phan was also one of the first scholars to think about the implications of world Christianity in theology. This book responds to that intellectual provocation, and is in conversation with Phan’s multiple contributions to world Christianity which span a number of disciplines and topics.

Part 1 defines world Christianity, identifying its origins as a field of study and assessing how it has transformed our approaches to Christian history. Furthermore, it investigates the impact of migrant Christianities upon global north churches. Dale Irvin’s opening chapter, a slightly revised version of an earlier publication, addresses world Christianity’s scope, nature, and horizons, and urges the consideration of contributions from the six continents, which often factor in the modern/colonial fissure that has impacted Christian history over the past five hundred years. In other words, world Christianity does not become a free pass to overlook colonial wounds. It combines memory and imagination in search of new futures, as Phan suggests, paying special attention to overlooked and marginalized voices in Western academic discourses of Christian identity, history, theology, and mission. Moreover, world Christianity promotes inter/multicultural approaches, which take into account multiple agencies and mutual influences. Accordingly, world Christianity is contextual, hybrid, and dialogical.

In a polycentric world Christianity, people speak from particular loci of enunciation—very often from a position of discomfort, which Phan identifies as “the underside of history” (à la Gutierrez), and “betwixt and between” (i.e., not fully belonging anywhere). Some of them, as Gemma Tulud Cruz underscores, face double marginality, being on the margins in society and in the community of faith. Their voices also remain either totally absent or marginal in academic discourses which, as Amos Yong points out, are suspicious of non-western cultural traditions and epistemologies.

Part 2 focuses on new ways of doing theology. This is the heart of the book, with nine chapters devoted to it. The triple dialogue advanced by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences informs most chapters. This important methodological contribution from Asian Christian theology combines prophetic concerns/solidarity with the oppressed (dialogue with the poor), attention to context and culture (dialogue with culture), and profound awareness of Christianity as a world religion in the midst of and in dialogue with other religions (dialogue with other religions). The nine chapters in this section scrutinize themes relevant to Christian theology and ethics such as the Trinity, christology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, liturgy and the sacraments, mission, bioethics, migration, and interfaith relations vis-à-vis methods and conversations emerging from different Christian experiences, mostly in the Asian/Asian-North American context.

Stephen Bevans, for instance, adapts language from his Models of Contextual Theology (2002) to speak more broadly of models of contextual theologizing in world Christianity, reflecting a new consciousness acquired through his dialogue with Asian theological discourses and multiple sources. He proposes an intercontextual model of theologizing that encourages critical dialogue between context and the wider Christian tradition, and among different contextual theologies. Yet Bevans does not name his own context among the contextual theologies he encourages to engage one another in critical dialogue.

Part 3 focuses on pastoral and practical concerns in world Christianity, beginning with a stimulating contribution by Jojo Fung about identity negotiations in indigenous Christianities, which he describes as “complex, hybridized and therefore multiple” (295). Such a description, as well as the notion of “crossed tradition,” which emphasizes cross-fertilization and hybridization, contrasts with concerns for unity that lean towards defining the contours of world Christianity. Joseph Cheah’s essay on the growth of the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) in the United States, in conversation with notions of multiple religious belonging and practices (common in Asian religions), also exemplifies such cross-fertilization. Edmund Chia reviews interchurch dialogue vis-à-vis the new ecumenical challenges in an age of world Christianity. The final chapter in this section offers a poignant discussion of world church music in the context of world Christianity, which challenges shallow practices of inclusion, and proposes a revitalization of theological awareness, contributing to the construction of “socially viable identities” (352).

Two essays on Phan’s influence as a person and as a theologian stand like an appendix to the book. In my view, at least one of them should appear earlier in the book. After all, this book is a conversation with Phan. As any situated collection of essays, it privileges some voices and leaves others out. For instance, no author from Latin America, the Caribbean, or Africa contributes to the conversation. There is only one Latina contribution from the US. This oversight is not unique. For example, previous books on world Christianity have privileged African voices. Latin America still remains underrepresented in the field. Privileging specific conversations, concerns, and voices is not necessarily a problem. It is important, however, to acknowledge and name the context of the conversation, thus doing justice both to the meaningful contributions from Asian and Asian-North American scholars, and to the absent voices. Documenting a particular yet important conversation in world Christianity, this book offers sharp insights to the past, present, and future of this field of studies, exemplifying the creative approaches that often emerge from multi/intercultural collaboration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raimundo C. Barreto, Jr. is Assistant Professor of World Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Y. Tan is Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan Professor of Catholic Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. He is the author of Introducing Asian American Theologies(2008) and Christian Mission among the Peoples of Asia (2014).

Anh Q. Tran, SJ teaches historical and systematic theology at Santa Clara University's Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. His research interests include world Christianity, religious pluralism, intercultural/interreligious dialogue, Asian spirituality and theology, and Christian missions in Asia.


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