Introduction to World Christian History: a book review

My grad school prided itself on its global Christian impact; yet the church history I learned there was a largely Western story. Certainly there was an acknowledgement  that Christendom’s origins weren’t in the West, and the church in Africa and Asia; yet more time and energy was spent unearthing the European story as the dominant narrative running through Christian history. This made a certain amount of sense. It was a school in the West and the West has pride of place in medieval and modern Christianity; however there was a richer story than the one I was, in large part, told.

4088In Introduction to World Christian History, Derek Cooper explores the global development ‘across time and continents.’ Cooper is the associate professor of world Christian history at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. As such, he is used to introducing  students to the diversity of the world Christian movement. For this book, he utilizes the United Nations Geo-scheme for Nations as a template for exploring Christian history in three periods: the first to the seventh , the eighth to the fourteenth, and the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries.  These division departs between the seventh and eighth centuries in his periods, de-centers the European story. Traditional church history treats the conversion of Constantine and the first Council (both fourth century) as a “watershed moment” in the Christian story (16). However Cooper observes these events may be overstated in global importance, particularly when you consider that the church was never coterminous with the Roman empire and the “councils never represented the whole church” (16-17).

In part one, Cooper explores Christianity in the first to seventh centuries. He begins, in chapter one, with Asia as the birthplace and cradle of the Christian faith, describing the growth of the Christian movement in western Asia (i.e. president day Saudi Arabia and Turkey), central Asia (India and China) and Southern Asia (Iran).  Chapter two describes the deep roots of the African church (Northern Africa like Alexandria, Algeria and Tunisia, and the Eastern African church of Ethiopia. Chapter three examines the European story (in Eastern, Southern, Northern and Western Europe). In the early part of the Christian story Asian and African Christianity loom large.

Part two examines again the regions of Asia, Africa and Europe, this time from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. While Asian and African Christians were dominant in earlier times, this was a difficult period for both of them (i.e. the spread of Islam and other faiths, the Crusades, isolation of Asian Christian communities). Cooper writes, “Although it is not accurate to state that Christianity died in Asia at this time, it certainly diminished—and fairly rapidly and extensively so” (87). This is true of Africa as well. African Christians suffered severe persecution with the spread of Islam. In some areas the Christian faith was stamped out though a Christian witness remained in both Asia and Africa, though a chastened one.  It is in this era the European story becomes the dominant narrative of Christian history (chapter six).

Part three describes Christianity from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries. In this period global diversity explodes in the Christian movement. Cooper lays aside his tripartite division of Asia, Africa and Europe, adding region and scope. He begins with Europe (chapter seven) and traces the growth of  global Christianity through evangelization. He devotes a chapter each to Christianity in Latin America, Northern America, Oceania (Australia and New Zealand, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia), Africa and Asia.

This is a short book. about 250 pages for all of Christian history. As the title suggests this is an introduction to World Christian history, not the definitive word. By necessity Cooper gives us a bird’s-eye-view of Christianity than a detailed analysis of every region; nevertheless he does give us a more robust sense of the global Christian movement through the ages. Theologians like Thomas Oden and historians like Phillip Jenkins have noted that the center of Christianity has shifted, in recent history, east and south. This is true, and Cooper would concur. However his ‘at-a-glance’ romp through church history reveals that the global character of Christianity is not a recent phenomenon, but one of its persistent features.

This would be a good supplementary text for a Church history class, though it is an accessible read for anyone interested in Christian history. As a student, I would have used this book as a jumping-off-point for deeper research. Cooper uses contemporary names for regions and countries throughout makes this approachable for the non-scholar and ordinary reader. I give this four stars.

Note I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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