Mark Noll. From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian's Discovery of the Global Christian Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014. 224 pp. $19.99.
A friend recently persuaded me to watch Fast and Furious 6. “Best movie in the franchise,” he assured me. Having missed installments 1–5 (in which people drive cars furiously), I had to trust him. The film had its moments, even if some dialogue seemed weak:
Government official: “If we don't stop them, they'll destroy Western civilization.”
Fast and Furious leader: “We'll need faster cars.”
This will be ludicrous or amusing, according to one's view of the machinery of a movie's genre. If the genre is “action,” subcategory “vehicular,” something has to get the cars started.
Mark Noll's recent work From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian's Discovery of the Global Christian Story faces a similar question. The monograph is memoir, not history, so it's not an account of the spread of Christianity but of a historian's discovery of its spread. As Noll notes, Christianity is “turning south.” In 1900, Christians constituted about one-third of the world population, as they do now. But in 1900 82% of Christians lived in Europe (including Russia) or North America, whereas today 65% of all Christians live in Latin America, Africa, Asia, or Oceana (134–37). Noll wrote From Every Tribe and Nation because his editors convinced him a memoir might best explain these changes to Western Christians (x–xi). Despite “grave suspicion” and “real reluctance,” Noll decided they might be right (ix, xii), even though it seemed like a strange project. The challenge offered him a chance “to figure things out,” though he was still uncertain he should write the book, especially as memoir (41).
The professor of history at Notre Dame has the erudition, clarity, wit, recall, generosity of spirit, and eye for detail that memoirists need. But memoir is a demanding genre. A teacher may resonate with his accounts of the way gifted students shape a professor and his courses, but no one sits forward for chapters with thesis statements like “I was blessed with outstanding teachers” and “Wheaton was in many ways an ideal place for a young scholar” (24, 39). Still, the format works when Noll gently chides the beloved mission-minded church of his youth for a truncated grasp of world Christianity, and tenderly laments the missionaries' insensitivity to the contexts of the indigenous peoples they served (2–8).
The book shines brightest when Noll drops the artifice and writes as a historian. His second chapter celebrates his rescue—by Luther, Calvin, and Kuyper—from an evangelical Christianity that believed, first, that “the most grievous [sins] were unwed pregnancy, divorce, alcoholism” and, second, that “Catholics were doomed because they followed not Christ, but the pope” (15). It's a dashing account of the Reformation in itself, and all the more compelling since Noll's story shows how the Reformation still reforms believers (11–22, 50ff.).
Chapter 8 also sparkles as Noll describes his trips, starting in 1989, to the former communist bloc. At about that time he encountered Andrew Walls, Adrian Hastings, Lamin Sanneh, and many others. As Noll presents his sources, the reader parachutes into a Ph.D. seminar as an encyclopedic mind burns through lists of seminal sources. The leader pauses and a bold student wonders, “What will I learn from these essential authors?” Noll obliges.
From Walls: Christianity has always been “both a particular and a universal faith.” It has “a recognizable measure of commonality” and a way of “adapting to specific times” and places. It always exalts Christ and always “indigenizes” (93–97).
From Herbert Butterfield and Grant Wacker: Premodern or “ideological” or “tribal” historians assume that “historical writing exists in order to illustrate the truth of propositions” known before the study begins (103). Take heed, therefore, all who think history culminates in your errand, reign, people, or system. However diligent the research may be, it doesn't count as public history since the “facts,” however meticulously assembled, are “linked by explanatory frameworks that only insiders will find credible” (104–05). Wise preachers and lecturers will heed the implied rebuke. Curiously (this is my point, not Noll's), this also means that Marxism, which is postmodern due to its hermeneutic of suspicion, is also premodern due to its tendentiousness.
From David Martin: The shape of a society “when it was comprehensively Christian will strongly influence the way secularization takes hold when Christianity begins to fade.” Thus the caesaropapist Russian orthodox church, where czars ran the church, begat the communists. And in Britain “a relatively mild church-state establishment” leads to a society that leaves space for dissenters (147–52).
A reader might accuse me of tossing out likable elements rather than assessing the whole work. Perhaps, but the genre “memoir” leads to great moments more than grand theses. And this memoir has many fine notes about the spread of Christianity.
An editor once told me Christian memoirs work, commercially, in just two cases: the author is very famous (Teddy Roosevelt, Tim Tebow) or has a sensational story (terrorist converts to Christianity). The quasi-memoir, in the spirit of Henri Nouwen (In the Name of Jesus) or Wesley Hill (Washed and Waiting), can work too. Chris Rock says “success” means having options; by that definition, most Christian authors and publishers are unsuccessful. It's easy to lose money, so editors minimize risk. Movie studios embarrass themselves with Rocky V because Rocky V is safe. Christian publishers pursue safety too, and shun riskier fare. Let us draw two circles. Let them overlap thinly. Label one circle “Things authors want to write about” and the second “What editors want authors to write about.” We may do the same with the circles “What the world needs to hear” and “What sells.” Noll is erudite and likable and there is excellent material in this monograph. But I suspect that his doubts about his editor's proposal is correct. The genre of memoir is safe but limiting. May he find the time and the publisher for a riskier but richer work on this essential topic.