Gone and Forgotten

We all know the old phrase, “gone but  not forgotten”.  Well, there is also the reverse, gone and forgotten.  Over the past three decades historians of Christianity have developed a growing fascination and focus on the nature of Christianity as a global faith.  Prior generations of historians primarily focused on Christianity as it expanded and grew in the northern hemisphere.  Christianity was seen primarily as a western faith that was defined and dominated by Christians living and working in the northern hemisphere.  Christian history was the steady growth of the faith from the Middle East through Europe to North America.  Research on Christianity in the southern hemisphere or in the non-western world was viewed as specialized and or associated with the history of Christian missions.  Whatever the historical and theological  norm was for Christianity, that norm was established and maintained by western Christians living in the northern hemisphere.

If would be fair to say that in terms of historical research into Christianity as a global faith, we are in a period of transition, but I would suggest that over the next decade we will witness a growing challenge to the way Christianity has been understood.  Lamin Sanneh, a native of Gambia, West Africa and the D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity and Professor of History at Yale University stated the challenge this way, ” The day will come when the West will continue to hold the purse strings of the church, but at the same time Christianity will cease to be the monoploy of the West…That is part of the cultural clash that has now erupted between a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity.”

So in the midst of this reexamination of global Christianity, what has been rediscovered that up to this point was largely forgotten?

Before Christianity in Europe was even a viable faith in terms of numbers and organizational stability, there was a vibrant, growing,  and large Christian presence in Asia and Africa.  In the eleventh century Asia was home to at least a third of the world’s Christians.  Syria and Iraq were home to two Christian churches (Nestorian and Monophysite) that had grown and expanded into present day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Armenia, India, Sri Lanka, and China.  The cities of Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk were thriving Christian centers centuries before the coming of Islam.  These churches existed well into the fourteenth century and they operated in multiple languages:  Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Soghdian and Chinese.  In the eight century, Nestorian churches had been established in China and were influencing the spread of Christianity into Japan.

So what happened to this earlier global Christianity?  Why is this history of Christianity as a “global faith” not only gone but also forgotten?  What would it mean if we recaptured our larger global history and began to understand ourselves as a non-western faith?  What if the world outside of the west and the northern hemisphere ceased to be thought of only as a ”mission field” and was understood as a valuable and viable part of indigenous Christian history?

If you are interested at all in these questions I would encourage you to read two books, one by Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations and the other by Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity.


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