Introduction to World Christian History (Derek Cooper) -- A Review

INTRODUCTION TO WORLD CHRISTIAN HISTORY.  By Derek Cooper. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. 254 pages.

                There is a tendency to speak of Christianity as being a "Western" religion, by which most people mean that it is a European-centered religion. The fact is, Christianity, like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and a number of other major religions, is in fact an Asian-born religion. Its roots are in West Asia and from there it spread south, east, west, and yes, north over the past two millennia.  Telling the story of Christianity is not easy for it is a diverse religion, that has been formed by both its origins and its expanding contexts. It has ebbed and flowed through time, so that what was originally a West Asian religion came to dominate Europe and North America and now is in the process of finding its strength in the Global South. In part due to conflicts in the Middle East many have rediscovered the Christian communities that have existed through the centuries in places like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. Christianity may have become a minority religion in its homeland, but it has yet to disappear (though due to migration patterns Christianity is disappearing in that place we call “The Holy Land.”

                What we need as Christians is an introduction to the global nature of our faith, one that takes seriously both geography and chronology. One who has done this is Derek Cooper, associate professor of World Christian history at Biblical Theological Seminary. This is an important resource, because as one who is by training a church historian I know how it easy it is to focus on the trajectory that leads from the origin to my current context. Thus, as a Protestant Christian living in North America, my own studies and focus and even teaching has tended toward moving toward my own context, leaving aside or marginalizing other trajectories. In this very readable and accessible book (don’t let the publisher’s imprint scare you away from taking up the book, it’s rooted in scholarship but it’s not overly academic!), we see how the Christian faith moved outward in all directions as early as the first century of the common era. While Christianity would come to dominate Europe, its earliest successes lay elsewhere. One of the things I appreciate most about Cooper’s book is the attention given to Syriac Christianity, especially the Church of the East and the Coptic Church, both of which stand outside the Chalcedonian orbit.  

                  This is a relatively brief book, that covers ground that a Kenneth Scott Latourette covered in two massive volumes with small print or that Justo Gonzalez covers in two slightly smaller volumes. He does so in part because he largely steers clear of theological disagreements. He acknowledges them but largely leaves them alone. His focus isn’t on theology but global expansion (and decline), and he does so in a matter of 254 pages, including acknowledgments and index.  Therefore, he rarely stops in one place for long. Sometimes he chooses to emphasize one particular country to illustrate what is happening in a broader region, or picks a time and place that is critical to movement of the faith in a new direction or new place. For the most part he seems to cover the topics at hand with diligence and forthrightness. He does make an occasional mistake or at least it would seem to me that a mistake had been made (one glaring example concerns the suggestion that explorer Henry Stanley was a disciple of David Livingstone), but these mistakes don’t really affect the overall message of the book, and that is that from the very beginning Christianity has moved in all directions.

                What makes this book intriguing and somewhat unique is the way in which he lays out his study. He organizes the book according to the United Nations Geoscheme, exploring the place of Christianity as it exists in each sub-region. To give an example, the UN Geoscheme organizes Asia according to five sub-regions: Central, Eastern, Southern, Southeastern, and Western. This helps us better place how Christianity has expanded over time (as well as declined). With this geographical scheme in place, Cooper divides the book into three chronological parts.

                Part one covers Christianity from its birth in the first century to the seventh century. During this period Christianity existed in Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was, of course, in the seventh century that Islam began to make its push across Asia and northern Africa, overtaking what had previously been Christian strongholds. So we watch as Christianity moves outward, finding its earliest successes in Asia, including modern Turkey, and moving across northern Africa, with Egypt becoming a major success. While Cooper doesn't focus on theology, he does note that early Christianity was theologically diverse, especially with regard to the nature of Christ.  

                Part two continues to focus on the presence of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Europe, as Christianity had yet to make its presence known in the Americas or Oceania. This period runs from the eighth through the fourteenth centuries, a period in which Christianity makes its greatest inroads into Europe and, largely due to the birth and expansion of Islam, begins its long decline in Asia and Africa. Even as the former centers of Christianity, including the Holy Land, came under Islamic rule, culminating in the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, Christianity came to dominate Europe. There is no greater example of this than the conversion of the Germanic peoples, especially the Franks, to Catholic Christianity, which culminated in the crowning of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 CE. Even though the Byzantine Empire pulled back from Asia and Africa during the Middle Ages, Orthodoxy spread north and east, finally taking root in Russia. This is the period in which monasticism emerged as a powerful witness to the Gospel and as preserver of classical learning. It was the age in which universities and great cathedrals emerged. This set the stage for the third movement of Christianity, the focus of part three.

                There is a tendency, especially among Protestants, to divide Christian history into two ages—the age before the Reformation and the age after Reformation. With the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famed nailing of the Ninety-five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle at hand, it’s easy to make that delineation. Cooper, however, has chosen a different point in time as the key marker of movement. Acknowledging the theological import of the Reformation (he is after all an evangelical Protestant Christian), he wants us to think in terms of global expansion. Therefore, it is not the 16th century that should be our marker, it’s the fifteenth century. It is during the 15th century that the age of European exploration begins. Spain and Portugal move outward from Europe and find new lands, with special emphasis on the Americas. For good or bad, this land, though inhabited for millennia by indigenous peoples, came to the attention of Christian Europe. With the conquistadors went missionaries and then European settlers. Over time the Americas became Christianized. It was during this era that European Christians connected with sub-Saharan Africa and reconnected with much of Asia, as well as in time discovering the world of Oceania. In part three of the book Cooper helps us understand the expansion of Christianity into these new territories. While Orthodoxy continued to make its presence felt in Eastern Europe, especially Russia and the Balkans, it was originally Roman Catholic missionaries that expanded the Christian world. Protestants were pretty late to the game, with Protestant missions only coming into existence in the late 18th century.   

                For the most part Cooper, who appears to be an evangelical, remains true to his promise not to "arbitrate among rival articulations of what it means to be a Christian" (p. 19). He doesn't place a grid of orthodoxy on the various claimants to Christianity, so if you make the claim to be Christian, he counts you. In doing so, he allows for us to explore the global expansion of Christianity in all its forms. For many Christians reading this book will introduce them to forms of Christianity that have great ancient lineages, and have existed in places like Iraq and India and Ethiopia from almost the beginnings of the Church. It will also be helpful in letting go of the idea that Christianity is a European/American religion.

                This last recognition is important because it is becoming clear that even as Christianity is in decline in Western Europe and North America, it is booming in the Global South and in Asia. Failure to recognize these changes diminish our own sense of who we are as a Christian community. Due to these changes, we can say that in many ways, the Christian community is returning to its roots.

                Of course a book this brief cannot cover every region in the same way. I wish more had been said about the spread of Christianity in Oceania, for instance. In regards to Southeastern Asia, while the Philippines is certainly in need of exploration, I was hoping for something to be said about the Christian presence in Vietnam.  At the same time, as noted earlier, it is good to hear how far and wide Syriac Christianity spread.

All in all, I believe this book will serve nicely as an introduction to world Christianity, as its title indicates!  I recommend it to the Christian community at large so that we can re-envision our place in the world. This is an especially acute need for American Christians who sometimes forget the global nature of our faith. After all, how many American Christians know that the second largest missionary sending nation of our day is South Korea? 


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