Tim Challies visited 25 different countries in his memorable year. And I think he may have even eaten McDonald’s in each of these countries. He attended worship services on every continent. He searched high and low for the artifacts that would help him tell the story of 2,000 years of Christian history. And he brings us along that journey in his new book, Epic: An Around-the-World Journey through Christian History, published by Zondervan.
I loved following along on social media as he traveled north and south, east and west. I admire his zeal to introduce us to long-lost heroes of the faith, and even to warn us against some wrong turns in the journey. This book matches what we’re doing with Gospelbound, searching for firm faith in an anxious age. Because he looks back on God’s faithfulness even as he looks forward to what God might yet do before Jesus returns.
Challies writes, “If I learned anything from my journey around the world, it’s the simple truth that the Lord is always at work.”
Indeed, he is. Challies is the noted blogger of challies.com and author of several books, including Visual Theology and The Next Story. He joined me on Gospelbound to share more about this remarkable journey around the world and how we might grow in faith by learning from the past.
This episode of Gospelbound is brought to you by Southeastern Seminary. In a changing ministry landscape, Southeastern’s four-year master of divinity and master of business administration program was built on a foundation of rigorous theological training and practical vocational training. Learn more at sebts.edu.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: Tim Challies has visited 25 different countries in his memorable year, and I think he may even have eaten McDonald’s in each of these countries. Is that true to Tim?
Tim Challies: I ate McDonald’s in every country where there was a McDonald’s.
Collin Hansen: Okay. All right. That’s fair enough. Well, Tim attended worship services on every continent. He searched high and low for the artifacts that would help him tell the story of 2,000 years of Christian history, and he brings us along that journey in his new book, Epic, An Around-the-World Journey Through Christian History, published by Zondervan. I loved following along on social media as he traveled North and South, East and West. I admire Tim’s zeal to introduce us to long lost heroes of the faith and even to warn us against some wrong turns in the journey.
Collin Hansen: This book matches what we’re doing with Gospelbound, which is searching for firm faith in an anxious age because Tim looks back on God’s faithfulness even as he looks forward to what God might yet do before Jesus returns. Tim writes this: “If I learned anything from my journey around the world, it’s the simple truth that the Lord is always at work, and indeed he is.” Tim Challies is the noted blogger of challies.com, and author of several books including Visual Theology and The Next Story, and he joins me on Gospelbound to share more of this remarkable journey around the world and how we might grow in faith by learning from the past. So thank you for joining me, Tim.
Tim Challies: Thanks for having me.
Collin Hansen: Such an inspiring book, and I can hardly believe it the first time you shared about how this project came about, you told me that over email and you write about it in the introduction to Epic as well, but tell us how this project even found financing to begin with.
Tim Challies: Yeah. So I had just really for fun, I’d done some writing on the subject of objects before and Christian objects and tracing history through it, but had never really thought that I could actually make the journey myself. And one day got inspired to plot out what would a journey look like and where would I go, what would I want to see, what are some of the objects I’d want to discover along the way. So I plotted it out, put it all in a document and then just thought, I don’t see how this thing could ever actually happen.
Tim Challies: And it just so happened right after I did all that. In fact, within a day or two, somebody got in touch with me. Somebody has since become quite a good friend. He got in touch and just said, hey, I represent a group of businessmen and we’ve been following your work and we’d like to support something you’re doing. The question he asked was something like, is there anything you’ve ever wanted to do or any project you’d want to take on where money has been the object? And I told him about this project and he was happy to get me going with it. And so it just came together just like that. It was remarkable.
Collin Hansen: I wish I had more friends like that, Tim. No wonder you’ve become quite a friend. It’s just wonderful to see that kind of Christian generosity and for us to be able to all benefit from it in producing this book. Now, I think this question is one that you anticipated. It’s one I think that’s obligatory. We’re Protestants, we don’t venerate relics, how does your project differ?
Tim Challies: Well, in a Catholic setting, relics are a conduit almost between yourself and the grace of God. There’s something that can happen through those objects. There’s grace God can give you through them, and if you go to many of the great cathedrals and European continent, for example, you’ll see those relics, you’ll see dead men’s bones and people praying to them or through them or however they want to determine. I’m setting up these objects as simply a piece of history that’s fixed that we can look at and see today and learn lessons from it. So, there’s no veneration of the object and even no veneration of the people beyond the object who held it or owned it or used it. We’re simply taking these objects as a sign or as a stand in for a person or a period of history or a movement of God in time.
Collin Hansen: Tim, I can’t relate at all to this critique, but I feel like I need to offer it. Not everybody loves history or church history, speak to those folks. Why should they join you on this epic tour of the artifacts of Christian history?
Tim Challies: When you become a Christian, you don’t start something, you join something that’s already in progress. You join a family of believers that extends 2,000 years—really much longer than that into history. And so, it’s so important to get your bearings in the long line of what God has done over the course of history. There’s so much we can learn from the past, but really we need to orient ourselves within this stream of history. And so before we can look forward, we need to look back and just very practically. It’s always amazing to me how much we can learn from the past and apply directly to today. So there’s so many theological controversies that arise today and as we go looking in history, we see, oh, that’s already happened or something very, very similar to it. We can just look what those people determined back in the day and apply it to this.
Tim Challies: Or today we’re going through a bit of uncertainty regarding a virus that’s going around the world, a pandemic, we can look into Christian history, see how have Christians done with this in the past, how have Christians responded to such things in the past. And there’s a lot we can learn from our brothers and sisters of long ago.
Collin Hansen: Couldn’t agree more. I think a lot of times people have just never been taught it in such a compelling fashion as what you do in Epic and what you do with the videos and what you’ve done with social media and things like that. So, one of the reason why I think the project is so worthwhile is that it can help people to break through the idea that history is this static thing that’s merely about long last names and dates on the page. I have not been able to travel as much as you have. I think only two of the artifacts that you’ve seen have I also seen, John Calvin’s chair in Geneva and Billy Graham’s pulpit in Wheaton, Illinois. Which historical site or artifact, Tim, is way more interesting than we might suspect and what place is not nearly as interesting as you had hoped? Little positive and negative there.
Tim Challies: Sure. What is way more interesting, I think a lot of them are way more interesting, but one that jumps out to me is the Papallacta dam in Ecuador, that on the one hand you can just look at this thing and you see it’s a little dam above a little or below a little lake, and there’s a river flowing from it, runs down to a generating station. So what? But you read the story behind that dam and how there were Christians who wanted to broadcast the gospel throughout Latin America. They were using up all the power they had. They were paying too much for power. So they needed more power. So what did they do? They bought land that had a lake on it. They dammed the lake. They built their own generator, all of this at 14,000 feet above sea level and without machinery. And they did this all for the glory of God.
Tim Challies: In fact, the dam used to have inscribed on it, water to the glory of God. It’s an amazing story. So okay, you just look at this thing. You happen to be going through Ecuador, for some reason you find yourself way up this mountain, you see a dam, you think nothing of it, but you know the story behind it, and it’s just absolutely mind blowing.
Collin Hansen: No machinery? I mean, again, no machinery.
Tim Challies: No, they brought it, they brought everything over the mountains on pack mules. They had one helicopter that brought one, especially heavy thing. Other than that, it was all done by hand. People drilling holes by hand, dynamiting, shoveling, it’s an extraordinary feat of engineering just so they could broadcast the good news of the gospel. And they built this thing when there were very few radios. I mean, these people had faith to understand what God was doing and would be doing in the future. So, it’s amazing. The second question is what is not nearly as interesting?
Collin Hansen: Yeah
Tim Challies: Oh boy. Okay. I’m going to get in trouble here from our friends across oceans.
Collin Hansen: That’s my goal. That’s my goal.
Tim Challies: Yeah. Okay, good. So Australia, New Zealand are beautiful, wonderful places, but they’ve also been settled very, very recently. And so there’s not a ton of really fascinating history there as far as I know. I mean I’ve found some neat things, but I went because I had to and there are some other interesting objects I found there. But yeah, if you want to research church history, I probably wouldn’t begin in Australia, not to mention New Zealand.
Collin Hansen: That’s fair. And I think a lot of the United States would probably fall into that same category as well. A lot of it having been settled around that same, especially as you head West. So, that makes a lot of sense. Now I share your love for the Reformation Museum in Geneva, highly recommend it. Now of course we wouldn’t agree with all the interpretations in that museum, but just amazing. I just remember the sheer joy of when I stumbled across it. It was just opened not long before I had visited next to Calvin’s church, and there was also that surprise that came and joy that came because I just didn’t even know it was there. But what other museum stands out as a must see if possible for Christians?
Tim Challies: Yeah. I went into many, many museums over the course of the year, I’d want to point to the British Museum for pre-Christian history. So most of that is Old Testament history, so people think of that, but there isn’t really anything or very little anyway, that’s new Testament. But I think the British Library is incredible. Not quite a museum, and so it’s a collection within the British Library, but they have some amazing, amazing things there. The trick is they rotate some of them. So you may go there and find Lady Jane Grey’s prayer book or you may not, but they have some incredible things. They have all the best Bibles, all the world changing Bibles. They’ve got the original score for Handel’s Messiah. They’ve got some amazing objects there. So, that’s a must see, and in a city, many people get to over the course of their life as well. It’s not too far off the beaten path.
Collin Hansen: Right. Well, I’m glad you brought up the dam in Ecuador, which by the way, what timeframe was that? When was it completed or how long did it take, do you remember?
Tim Challies: It was in the ‘70s.
Collin Hansen: Okay, got it. Okay. Yeah, so, and I thought it was about that time period, but you’re right, just I mean, well before a lot of technological changes had followed through there. And you talk about, and of course you’ve always been dialed into technology, and you as the book progresses talk about our phones and our apps and all these things that can do so much to spread the gospel around the world with so little effort by comparison to that dam in Ecuador. And I’m wondering, have we lost anything in that transition toward some of the simplicity and ease of being able to transmit the Christian message? Have we lost anything or has it only gained, because I think the gain is pretty obvious. And for the record, Tim, I think you need to leave your laptop behind someday for future generations to visit, be an artifact.
Tim Challies: Sure. I actually thought about modern-day objects, could I find the original manuscript of Paul Washer’s shocking youth sermon or something, but that all just seems a little too dry to get too modern. Have we lost something? I don’t know. It’s interesting you think that dam, when they were broadcasting the gospel, when that radio station, I believe it started in the ’30s in Ecuador, when they started to broadcast, I think there were about five or six radios in their broadcast area that could even receive it. And when those radios were receiving information, it was basically just the Christian material. There wasn’t much else being broadcast. And so maybe the big comparison is just today we’re absolutely constantly flooded all the time with information. We have to work hard to remove ourselves from the flow of constant media, constant information.
Tim Challies: Whereas in that day, I think people were eager to encounter information because they had so little of it coming their way. You can read Neil Postman as he talks about that transition in humanity where we went from a dearth of information to, oh, we went from so little to so much to just be drowning in it. And so I really wonder if that’s it. If today what our trouble is just cutting through the noise to try and say this gospel message we’re bringing you really is more important than anything else you’re hearing. It’s just hard to get the message out amidst all the noise.
Collin Hansen: And it’s very clear that even in reading the Bible on the same device that you text emojis to your friend where you get stock market updates, where you get sports scores or all that different thing, it can be pretty difficult. It’s not totally different from radio or television in that regard, but it can be very confusing and especially when you begin to add elements such as the worship service there and the distractions that can come from that as well. One of the people that you really made an impression on you was Amy Carmichael in India. Tell us a little bit more of why.
Tim Challies: Yeah, so I had read about Amy Carmichael a couple times and then a couple of books about her. Then Iain Murray had come up with a great little biography of her, and I was really drawn to that because theologically, Iain Murray should not by rights be that enthusiastic about Amy Carmichael. I mean they were very different theologically, and yet he really honored her and really came to enjoy her. And at the end of the book he talks a little bit about their theological differences, some concerns he would have had, but I was really drawn to her I think largely through some of his writing.
Tim Challies: But yeah, so I started in Ireland and spent some time touring her sites there, and then went to the south of India, and yeah, it was just incredible to go to this ministry that she founded, she fundraised for and while there to meet people who had actually met her, who had actually either known her or at least had come in as little children and to see this ministry still carrying on as far as I could tell, still preaching the gospel, still going quite strong. Still serving the people around and about. It was powerful to see what somebody can do. They’re just full-out committed to the Lord, committed to honoring him and their unique callings. She just stands to me as a special example of a woman who is faithful in what God had called her to.
Collin Hansen: I didn’t know that about Murray and that probably is a surprise to a lot of people who know Murray’s other writings. What reason did he give for why she was so compelling to him?
Tim Challies: I think he was just drawn, again to the depth and simplicity of her faith. I’m not remembering exactly what he said to lodge her there, but I really think that was it. Just seeing this woman who did so much with seemingly so little, even as a young girl, she founded a church when she was in her teens or barely into her 20s not as the pastor, but as somebody who just saw the need for a church for some people who were otherwise overlooked by society and who found the money, and had the building constructed and hired a pastor and all that just to serve these people. I mean she was a feisty driven person and yeah, just had again, an amazing impact on the people in that area of India.
Collin Hansen: I can’t even imagine the kind of logistical demands of organizing a trip like this. Did you do this yourself or did you have some other help? I know you traveled with Stephen McCaskill.
Tim Challies: Yeah, no, I did all the planning for it, because it just takes a ton of time and a ton of planning to do it right. And you’ve got to learn how to master airlines and stuff like that to do these things really well. And I tell you the Lord was so kind to us. I don’t think I missed a flight or missed a connection out of, I don’t know how many flights, how many miles, but everything went very, very smoothly. We had a couple of little hiccups but very, very little.
Collin Hansen: Wow. So, focus on the hiccups there, what is an artifact or trip you really wanted to see or to do that fell through?
Tim Challies: So the first trip to Italy was basically just a wipe out. And a friend of mine who’s Italian lives in Rome just said, well that’s Italy for you. So what do you expect? We went to the Vatican Museums, and two things there I wanted to see were both closed, one was the Palatine Hill and it was closed mysteriously for no reason, no reason posted, just closed. So, and that was my very first trip. So, going across the world and finding everything shut down for no reason posted, no reason whatsoever was rather discouraging. So I had to, as I described in the book, ended up having to go back.
Tim Challies: But yeah, there are other objects I wanted to find. One of the things you find is that where Christians are persecuted, they tend to not get rid of just the people but their objects. So you think somebody of the impact of Hudson Taylor would have lots of objects left behind, but I couldn’t find a single object related to his life. There’s a great story about his tombstone, and so I found that and told the story of that. But so where there was persecution, objects disappeared, and then where enough time has passed. So you won’t find much, many objects related to the very early church, because those things have just been lost to time and decay.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Imagine how different that would be if not for say the Muslim conquest of much of the Middle East and North Africa given the role of those regions in Christian history, imagine it would look very different there. Play travel guide a little bit here, Tim. If Christians could take just one pilgrimage not to Jerusalem, I think we’ve got to say that, where should they go?
Tim Challies: I think the greatest concentration of Christian history is in the UK. You can go just about anywhere. You can drive any route and you’ll find some of the great missionaries, some of the great preachers. There’s just so much centered there. One thing you see as Christian history unfolds is the center of Christianity shifts over time. So it was North Africa, it was Rome, it was Jerusalem, it was for a long time Germany, and then Central Europe, and then the UK. More recently, I’d say it shifted towards America, but the UK is good because it’s not that long ago. They take history very, very seriously. During the time of the British empire, they were mad historians and so they collected lots of things and filed them away in museums.
Tim Challies: If there was one museum I wanted to see that no longer exists. There was a museum associated with the London Missionary Society where they sent missionaries all over the world and they collected an incredible collection of objects and had a whole museum dedicated to it. But that museum has since disbanded, and the objects have been scattered to the winds, many of them disposed of. But I found lots of references to that museum from back in the 1800s but has long since gone. But that would have been an absolute joy to browse.
Collin Hansen: That’s one of the first things I thought when you mentioned the UK that you would not think of that as the most vibrant place for Christianity today. But then of course as you point out, that’s basically how it’s always seemed to work. It’s a migratory religion in that sense. And so as I think about the United States or I think about North America, I imagine the same thing at some level being true, especially as it in some ways goes back then to places where it had been popular in Africa at one point.
Collin Hansen: So, last question here, Tim, again when talking about your book Epic, An Around-the-World Journey Through Christian History, I know that we’re just seeing the fruit of your last couple of years of labor, but I know you’re already hard at work on other projects. So what’s next for you? Where are you going to take us next?
Tim Challies: Yes, sure. Yeah. The next big project I’m working on is called working title is Worship Around the World. And I’m doing that with my friend Tim Keesee, who would be familiar to many listeners, and the two of us are hoping to circle the world and see how Christians worship in different parts of the world. So we’re looking specifically for churches that are theologically sound but also culturally distinct and that they’re worshiping in ways that are suitable for their styles or for their culture. So what we wouldn’t necessarily want to do is go far across the world and then worship at an English speaking church full of ex-pats. We’d rather go where they’ve really . . .
Collin Hansen: Chris Tomlin. Singing Chris Tomlin.
Tim Challies: Right, exactly. Exactly with guitar, all that. We’d like to go where the gospel has taken deep root and they’ve developed liturgies. They’ve developed ways of worshiping, they’ve developed their own music. They perhaps sing in a musical style that’s relevant there and then share that. So the big picture is I’d like people to imagine what God is doing every single Sunday. The sun rises over the South Pacific and Christians rise. They get out of bed and they worship in ways that are distinct to Fiji, to Tonga.
Tim Challies: And then the sun breaks over Australian and the Aussies worship, and then China and the Chinese people worship as Chinese people and just get this picture of what God is doing every Lord’s day. I think it should be a really a great experience and hopefully a real blessing for God’s people.
Collin Hansen: I’ll be there to watch on social media and to look forward to the book and the video as they come out there. I guess the real question, Tim, is that, does Tim Keesee, does he share your love of McDonald’s?
Tim Challies: I don’t think he does. He has a love for good coffee. I have a love for bad coffee, so we are anticipating some struggles there. We’ll do our best.
Collin Hansen: The Lord shall see you through. My guest on Gospelbound has been Tim Challies, author of Epic, An Around-the-World Journey Through Christian History. Thank you, Tim.
Tim Challies: Thank you.