A reader might well approach Brian Stanley’s Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History with a mix of intrigue and skepticism. How on earth, we might ask, can even the most skilled writer incorporate every major theme and movement, every key thinker and theological debate, in this action-packed era? How many thousands of pages would such a vaultingly ambitious project demand? How could such a book offer a proper and equitable balance between the worlds of Old and New Christendom? How dare any author even attempt such a thing?
In fact, Stanley’s book is a triumph, above all for its highly innovative structure. Indeed, that structure alone is exceptionally valuable both to readers and as a model for educators seeking to frame the ever-expanding Christian story worldwide. Of course (we are relieved to learn) Stanley is not offering any kind of exhaustive and exhausting encyclopedia of Faith, the Universe and Everything. Rather, he selects 15 critical themes in Christian history and explores how many different kinds of Christians have responded to social, cultural, and political issues. In each case, he illustrates his theme substantially with two geographical case studies, with an obvious emphasis on regions he knows particularly well. Even if the final product is not truly comprehensive, it certainly offers a very wide basis for future thought and reading.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of trends in modern Christianity will have opinions about what Stanley’s 15 key themes should be. We might disagree with the exact contents of his list, but few would question the reasonableness of including, for instance, “uneasy marriages between Christianity and nationalism”; the persecution of churches in different societies; ecumenism; the dilemmas of living as a Christian under Islamic rule; human rights, gender, and sexuality; the role of migrant churches; or the relationship between Christianity, ethnic hatred, and genocide.
But if the topics to some extent select themselves, Stanley then startles with his choice of specific examples. Yes, we know that Christians in different eras have exalted the notion of “Holy Nations,” but how many authors would think to examine this approach with a comparative study of Protestant nationalism in South Korea and Marian Catholic nationalism in Poland? Or to compare the churches’ response to genocide in Nazi Germany and Rwanda? One might easily point to the fundamental cultural differences between the nations placed under the microscope, especially when Catholic and Protestant traditions are juxtaposed. But overriding those forms of diversity is one key question. Each of these churches, sects, or movements claims to be Christian, regardless of its location and historical circumstances. So what exactly is the identifiable core of that Christian belief or understanding? How malleable is it?
Another strength of Stanley’s book is the serious attention paid to a wide diversity of traditions and denominations. A generation or so ago, a book giving adequate and fair coverage to both Catholics and (mainline) Protestants was laudable. Stanley certainly treats those two fully, but over and above that he offers a chapter on the Orthodox tradition, as viewed in the cases of Greece, Turkey, and even East Africa. Given his interest in Global South religion, he is very informative on Pentecostal worlds, as well as the African independent traditions represented by the Aladura and other healing churches.
Beyond offering comparisons, Stanley seeks to draw lessons of wider application, and in most cases, his conclusions are perceptive and useful. In neither Germany nor Rwanda, for instance, were churches directly responsible for undertaking genocide or stirring hatred, but in both cases, it is difficult to imagine that the mass slaughter could have occurred without their actions, either positive or negative. He makes the alarming but justified suggestion that in both cases, what cursed the churches was not ignoring the cause of justice or the prophetic Christian message but drawing precisely on that rhetoric to justify outrageous acts of criminality. Without a powerful sense of the presence of sin in society, calls for justice and liberation are all too likely to lead to demands for “justice” as envisioned by my particular community, my tribe, my race.
Given his background as a distinguished scholar of world Christianity, Stanley naturally favors “big themes” that might not have occurred to mainstream Christian historians of generations past. Take, for instance, his analysis of the situation of Christian communities living under the domination of another world religion, in this case Islam. We tend to forget that the experience of rule by other religious majorities (or minorities) has often shaped on-the-ground realities for Christian communities, and we can divide societies by the religious quality of their soundscapes. Societies where bells peal publicly are likely to have firm Christian foundations and a preferential role for Christians in society and government. But Christians in Hindu or Muslim worlds have to be very cautious about such public expressions, which would threaten to bring on persecution. The prevailing religious sound in the Islamic world is the cry of the muezzin.
Stanley’s choice of case studies in this chapter—Egypt and Indonesia—is particularly helpful because of the size of the respective Christian communities and their extraordinary histories. He points out that Christians in the West, even if they do not face active persecution at the hands of secularists, might likewise have to deal with being excluded from the respectable mainstream. And like those Christians in Muslim lands, they need to “find ways of embodying the universal compulsion of the gospel that evoke the spirit of Christ rather than the memory of a powerful Christendom.” This is, in fact, typical of the experience of reading the book. You begin by studying, say, the fascinating but unfamiliar story of the church in Indonesia, but you soon discover that these seemingly alien histories carry much wider lessons.
With one exception, to which I will return, Stanley’s selection of case studies is creative and rewarding, although an American reader might be somewhat surprised by certain themes and examples. Scholars based in the United Kingdom (like Stanley) are familiar with the understanding of religious affiliation proposed by sociologist Grace Davie, who separated “believing” from “belonging.” In a European nation with an established church, one might still have religious belief, but that does not necessarily correlate with active church membership, and any attempt at understanding secularization or the rise of the “Nones” has to appreciate this distinction. Stanley makes “belonging and believing” one of his key themes, with case studies of the US and Scandinavia, and again, the results are surprising. In many ways, he argues, the forms of government are much more “secular” in the US than in a land like Denmark.
Other transatlantic differences emerge in Stanley’s account of the church’s interaction with indigenous peoples, where he compares the well-known record of apartheid in South Africa with the ghastly story of Canadian churches operating residential schools as a means of educating and integrating native peoples. The Canadian tale is little known in the US, but it demands attention. And on the subject of global liberation theologies, an American reader would obviously expect a discussion of Latin America but might be nervous about Stanley’s comparison with the Palestinian theology associated with ecumenical movements like Sabeel.
The Centrality of Martyrdom
The quality of Stanley’s book is exactly what we might expect from a scholar of his reputation. Still, I have to register one fundamental objection to a particular choice of case study. In a chapter on “Making War on the Saints,” Stanley traces the efforts of secular states to uproot or crush Christian churches, unquestionably a major theme of the past century. He then compares the experiences of the Soviet Union and France, an attempted parallel that baffles me. Certainly, successive French regimes sought to destroy church power and to secularize society, and they achieved many of their goals.
But a Soviet comparison? Did tens of thousands of French clergy and laity fall to the machine guns of militias enforcing laïcité? Were thousands more tortured in gulags to make them forsake their faith? Even to ask such parallel-universe questions points out the radically different nature of the two cases. I am also surprised by how little stress he places on the extreme and pervasive Communist violence, which the regime itself explicitly described as systematic terrorism.
That actually gets to a larger point about the centrality of persecution, state terrorism, and martyrdom during this extraordinarily bloody era. If I were writing a book on 20th-century Christianity, I would assuredly choose Christian martyrdom as one of my dominant themes. Besides Soviet Russia, I would find abundant evidence in occupied Eastern Europe after 1945, in China, Vietnam, or North Korea, and in revolutionary Mexico or Spain during its 1930s civil war.
Overall, though, Stanley’s book is consistently perceptive and helpfully provocative. Reading it also forces us to think about the grand themes that will dominate the Christian story in our own day. Let’s consider his conclusion. In the 20th century, Stanley says, the greatest challenge faced by Christianity was “the repeated subversion of Christian ethics by a series of tragic compromises between Christianity and ideologies of racial supremacy.” Today, however, the greatest challenge “looks likely to be the preparedness of some sections of the church in both northern and southern hemispheres to accommodate the faith to ideologies of individual enrichment.”
Do I agree with that? I’m not sure. But having read Stanley’s book, I feel vastly better equipped to deal with the broad questions it raises.
Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. His many books include The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press) and The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne).
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