I have a bad habit of setting out on projects far larger than any reasonable person might attempt. As a case in point, I had to choose a graduate course in history I could teach next semester at Baylor University.
As I have done quite a bit of work on the subject, I chose as my topic “Global Christianity.” Not, as you may think, some particular period or region, but global Christianity—all of it. Covered in 15 weeks. Why will I never learn my limits?
In an odd way, though, that over-large choice really does have advantages. It forces me to make choices. You can’t tell every bit of the story, in every country and every era, so you have to concentrate on big themes and issues.
So, just suppose you were dealing with a group of well-read students who already know a lot about history, and particularly Christian history. What parts of this incredible story would you choose to focus on? Let me tell you what I am going to be looking at, and see if you agree.
Let me say right away another equally qualified professor might design a totally different course, with completely different approaches.
You can find my syllabus for the course online here. This also gives the list of books and readings, which of course are at the center of any course like this. I’m drawing on a wonderful list of scholars—Lamin Sanneh, Dana Robert, Brian Stanley and the rest.
Do realize, of course, when I require a book for a course, it does not mean I agree with its approach and conclusions entirely in every detail, but just that I think it makes a significant argument that demands to be discussed. You’ll also notice for each and every class, I give my students lists of questions that should help them through the various readings.
So what are the key themes and questions I think someone discovering this area needs to understand?
• The deep history
One involves what we might call the deep history of Christian expansion. Even today, when many Christians hear the word “missionary,” they think of the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, missions are central to the whole 2,000-year history of the faith, and throughout that story, we find very similar themes—and even plenty of the same arguments about the best way to advance the cause.
• Success and failure
So, in different times and places, how did Christianity spread? When we hear about mass conversions, what drew people to respond to the missionary message? What messages attracted and inspired listeners, and which repelled? These various books tell us so much about their reasons for accepting or rejecting the new faith. So often, we see people attracted by the Christian promise of healing—healing in mind, body and society.
Another key question: How deep or sincere were conversions? After conversion, what were the main problems churches and missions faced in tending their new flocks?
Church growth is a critical part of the story. Just as interesting—and often heart-breaking—why did missions fail, and why did even whole missions collapse? Tragically, that also is part of the global story.
• How do we know?
Throughout the course, we also face a persistent question: How far can the written sources on which we rely tell us about the spiritual changes ordinary believers experienced? Is it possible to understand the attitudes of ordinary people who were at the receiving end of these missionary attentions?
• A Christian revolution?
Throughout the course, I’ll be looking at the effects of conversion, the means by which ordinary people took these radical new teachings to heart and converted them into their own cultural forms. And once they did that, what was the social impact of those changes? Is Christianity a message of conservatism, of social radicalism, of liberal reformism or all at once?
Repeatedly, we find those Christian churches giving voice to hitherto excluded groups. Often, that impact comes in the form of new access to literacy and education, a potent vehicle of what we can only call a global Christian revolution.
• A woman’s world?
The more we look at these books and the story they tell, the more centrally we see the impact of conversion and church expansion on women. Time and again, women emerge as key mission leaders, as the writers of hymns and new Christian literature, and the builders of social ministries. Global Christianity is a women’s movement or it is nothing.
Those are some of the questions I’ll be trying to explore in the New Year. Wish me luck! And next time, remind me to be less ambitious in designing my courses.
Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, a scholar in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion and author of numerous books, including The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity.