From Times Square to Timbuktu (Wesley Granberg-Michaelson) -- A Review

FROM TIMES SQUARE TO TIMBUKTU: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church.  By Wesley Granberg-Michaelson; Foreword by James H. Billington.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013.  Xiv + 175 pages.

          It wasn’t that long ago that Christianity was largely a northern hemisphere religion.  For at least a millennium the global center of Christianity could be found in Europe.  European Christians defined the faith, created the dominant religious structures, and sent out missionaries who carried with them not only the gospel but European visions of civilization.  By the time the twenty-first century began, the center was moving with great rapidity southward, so that more Christians now live in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern.  While Christianity seems to be retreating in Europe and North America it is burgeoning in the Global South.  The recent election of Pope Francis, though he is of European descent, is a significant reminder that change is in the air.  Not only that, nations that were recipients of Western Missions are now returning the favor by sending missionaries northward.  Some of this accompanies migration patterns, but African and Asian churches see an increasingly de-Christianized West as a fruitful mission field.  Yes, the Christian World has been turned upside down.

                From Times Square to Timbuktu is an attempt by an American church leader, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, to make sense of this new reality.  He seeks to offer the American Christian community a wakeup call, a reminder that the world is changing and that Western religious hegemony has fallen apart.  He writes with a special concern for the unity of the Christina community, having served with the World Council of Churches.  He is concerned that the diverse nature of the Christian expressions in places like Africa could prove divisive.  He’s also concerned that churches in Europe and America will treat these burgeoning non-western churches in paternalistic ways.  

                 The title of the book is instructive.  Whereas in 1870 the global center of Christianity was to be found in Europe – represented by Times Square in New York – now it is more likely Africa, represented by Timbuktu.  I think for many Americans, at least until recently, Timbuktu was symbolic of the middle of nowhere.  I’ve known the name of the city most of my life, but I had no idea what it represented.  More recently, a radical Islamist takeover of this ancient city in the deserts of Mali, a city that has been at the crossroads of trade for centuries and home to a grand collection of Islamic texts, as well as shrines and centers of worship, a takeover that threatened to destroy this center of Islamic culture in the name of a radicalized form of Islam.  Of course, this is nothing new in history.  Christians were very adept at doing much the same thing – and still attempt to do so.  Timbuktu, in this case, represents the southern movement of Christianity. 

What stirs the greatest concern in the author’s heart is the trend toward division within this growing Christian community – divided along many different trajectories that include tribe and outside influences.  Pentecostalism is a key player and it has had the tendency to grow through division, both in the West and now in the South and East.  Much of this growth is sectarian in nature and less inclined toward ecumenical engagement.  

Here’s where things get trickier.  Because of these sectarian tendencies and lack of recognition of the catholic nature of the church, theologies and practices are emerging that lay outside the historic Christian traditions.  Some of this is due to syncretism, but it is also due to a lack of engagement with other traditions.  Further complicating the situation is the contrasting picture of growth and power.  Growth is taking place in the south, but the power remains in the north.   This is symbolized in Granberg-Michaelson’s mind by the location of the headquarters of the World Council of Churches – Geneva, Switzerland. 

Having spent much of his life in ecumenical work, the author is concerned about the unity of the church.  He sees this concern present in the biblical story and sees it as an expression of God’s heart.  Thus, this theme is ever present in the book.  At the same time, he is committed to bringing north and south into dialog in a way that allows both to speak to each other as equals.  This is especially important because the world’s peoples are becoming highly mobile, with many moving from south to north, bringing with them their theologies and practices.  Those of us in the north are being confronted with this post-colonial reality in ways that are forcing us to rethink many things.  Granberg-Michaelson writes:
How existing congregations in societies shaped and molded by Western Christianity, and now becoming increasingly secularized, respond to Christian immigrants now living in their midst will be decisive for the future shape of Christian witness. (p. 95).    
Granberg-Michaelson believes that if we can find unity in the midst of this diversity in our own contexts it will move outward, for as he notes the modern ecumenical movement had its beginnings within the missionary movement. 
                While the author is interested in the large scale developments, he also recognizes that true unity with diversity will be grassroots oriented.  If it doesn’t happen congregationally, then any large scale efforts may be meaningless.  It is in this context that Granberg-Michaelson discusses the need to pursue multi-ethnic/multi-cultural congregations.  This won’t happen without intentionality, and it must involve making sure that there is diversity in leadership and other forms of congregational life. 

                The future of the church is to be found in our ability to welcome the stranger and recognize and affirm our differences.  The future isn’t a form of assimilation where the colors are different, but the faith and practice is defined by European figures.  There must be interaction and interpenetration of cultures and ethnicities.  But as we do so we must affirm our call to unity.  This is not going to be easy.  We already see tensions arising as Christians north and south wrestle with matters of sexuality and gender.  Those in the north, are encouraged to take up the issues with humility.  Respectful listening is key -- but not easy to implement.

                This is a timely book for the church.  It is a good reminder of the current situation and the future of the church.  It is a call to unity and a call to letting power diffuse throughout the faith community.  As a Euro-American pastor of a mainline church that is almost completely white, this book at the very least offers a challenge to begin looking at ways, probably local, of building bridges that will allow Christians to welcome each other into the realm of God as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are blessed to have this gift to our churches.  Let us heed the call.


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