Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and AsiaWritten by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom Reviewed By Wesley L. Handy
This is the second book on global Christianity by Mark Noll, Francis McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, and Carolyn Nystrom as coauthor. Nystrom is a freelance writer who has authored or coauthored over seventy works, many historical or devotional in nature. Their previous work, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, also published by InterVarsity two years prior, seeks to trace the interrelatedness between American evangelicalism and world Christianity. In Clouds of Witnesses, Noll and Nystrom focus solely on world Christianity. They present seventeen biographies of important Christian heroes that many in the West would not likely be aware of. The book's title intentionally echoes the language of the biblical book of Hebrews to show that these men and women were both “exemplars” as well as faithful confessors of Christ (pp. 15-16). While the authors recognize that “focused biographical attention is not all that is needed,” though such work can “promote sympathetic engagement and charitable discussion with brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world” (p. 10), this beginning work grants both significance and equality to these African and Asian brothers and sisters, giving them somewhat of a voice in the West.
Of the seventeen biographical subjects, seven are from Africa, three from India, one from Korea, and six from China. From Africa they present these: Bernard Mizeki (c. 1861-1896), John Chilembwe (c. 1870-1915), and Albert Luthuli (1898-1967) from Southern Africa; William Wadé Harris (c. 1865-1929) and Byang Kato (1936-1975) from West Africa; and Simeon Nsibambi (1897-1978) and Janani Luwum (1922-1977) from East Africa. Those from India are Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), V. S. Azariah (1874-1945), and Sundar Singh (1889-1929?). The lone representative from Korea is Sun Chu Kil (1869-1935). Finally, from China are Dora Yu/Yu Cidu (1873-1931), Mary Stone/Shi Meiyu (1873-1954), John Sung/Song Shangjie (1901-1944), Yao-Tsung Wu/Wu Yaozong (1893-1979), Wang Mingdao (1900-1991), and Ignatius Cardinal Kung/Kung Pin-Mei (1901-2000). The authors dedicate a chapter to each of these men and women. In each chapter, they begin with a snapshot of the event(s) that served to define in some form the life and contribution of that person, followed by a recounting of as much of their early life as possible. This is followed by a more detailed discussion of their most formidable years, concluding with a brief analysis of their greatest contributions. Each chapter is brief, roughly 15-20 pages, and at the end of each chapter the authors analyze significant sources they used and that are also available for further reading. This is an invaluable service. To add to the book's usefulness, they also include a list of important works on the study of global Christianity just before the index in the back of the book. The authors also write a helpful “Afterword” that, along with their “Introduction,” provides the authors' only attempt at overall analysis of these great Christians.
In the “Afterword,” Noll and Nystrom point out that these biographies help to show the greater diversity present within Christianity now than in times past. They adeptly warn that this diversity should lead global Christianity to greater care in analyzing its various traditions: “The degree to which appreciation, critical scrutiny, cautious appropriation, or regretful rejection should guide the growing number of connections among Christian traditions is one of the important issues raised by the potpourri of lives we have introduced” (p. 276). Among the other important conclusions they humbly propose, they also identify “how often a spark lit by missionary-native contact initiated remarkable Christian expansion through native agency” (p. 276). This is a refreshing statement in the light of most scholarship on global Christianity. Like Kenneth Scott Latourette, whose greatest works marveled at the ability of Christianity to transcend geography, time, and culture, and were fittingly pro-missionary, Noll and Nystrom also see a role for cross-cultural missionary ministry within global Christianity. Nonetheless, they rightly reject the hegemony of the Western missionary in favor of viewing the missionary as “one important cog in a divine economy of many cogs-where the whole enterprise of expansion and maturation is bigger than any one perspective can comprehend” (p. 277). In this statement, they find the happy medium between the history of Christianity and the history of Christian missions, and their work is a good example of what that would appear to be.
This book is a helpful resource for the young scholar and the missionary. Undergraduate and possibly graduate students would benefit from the introduction to these Christians from afar as well as the bibliographic material provided in the book. The missionary would do well to learn that they are participants in a story that transcends them. As important as Ralph Winter's call for mission to the hidden peoples of the world really is, there are thriving churches all over the world who share the same mission to these same peoples. At that same time, missionaries can be encouraged that their work is not in vain. Just as missionaries have seen the Spirit work among new Christians like those presented, they can expect that same Spirit to continue that same work in the future.
Wesley L. Handy
Wesley L. Handy
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA