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A Review of
From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2014
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Reviewed by Andy Johnson
Few books describe the journey that a scholar takes to arrive at its conclusions. This is what makes From Every Tribe and Nation unique. It is a memoir of discovery, offering a rare glimpse into how a leading historian’s understanding of global Christianity has developed over time.
There is a growing awareness that the center of Christianity is no longer in the West but shifting toward the global South and East. From Every Tribe and Nation is the third in a series of books released by the Baker Publishing Group, entitled, “Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity.” This series invites scholars who have already turned their attention toward developments in global Christianity to share about how this subject became important to them.
Mark Noll spent 27 years teaching at Wheaton and the last 8 years at Notre Dame, focusing primarily on the history of Christianity and Evangelicalism in America. He is a prolific author and regarded as a leader in his field.
In From Every Tribe and Nation, Noll provides us with a refreshingly honest account of how his interests have gradually expanded from the church in American to its global expression. He does so not to draw attention to himself, as is evident from his hesitance to accept the request he received to write this book, but as a way to usher the reader into a broader understanding of God’s work throughout the world.
The three primary movements of the book trace how his experiences, relationships and work as a scholar have all contributed to his growing understanding that, “If the people of God come from every tribe and nation, so then should a history of the people of God try to take in every tribe and nation.” (xiii)
Learning From Experiences
The author’s experiences with global Christianity began at Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One of the strengths of this community was that it valued and supported missionary efforts. While experiencing a growing dissatisfaction with contemporary evangelicalism, his first breakthrough came through embracing insights from the Reformation.
He described the significance of this experience, “It was a discovery resulting from cross-cultural contact. Viewing the gospel from another’s perspective allowed me, for the first time, really to see the gospel.” (21) This sparked the realization that if people understood and practiced their faith differently in the past they might do so as well in far away places in the present.
Another experience that influenced Noll came from analyzing his appreciation for hymns. As evangelicals we have a tendency to assume that our own preferences are the normative expressions of Christian faith. When he realized that hymns meant more to him when sung in the traditional style he was accustomed to, it opened his mind to how this might also be true for others for people from other cultures
“If I was experiencing the universal gospel through a particular cultural expression, it followed that the same gospel could be as powerfully communicated through other cultural expressions, even if those expressions were alien or foreign to me.” (57)
Learning From Relationships
There were at least three key relationships in his life that helped turn Noll’s attention toward global Christianity. The first was with a Canadian scholar named George Rawlyk who focused on the history of Christianity in Canada as separate from its American expression. Pondering the differences between Rawlyk’s Canadian evangelicalism and his own in America caused Noll to think more broadly about expressions of faith around the world.
“The general direction in which Canadian history nudged me was toward a conviction that essential Christianity meant Christian reality embodied in concrete circumstances—but embodied often in quite different ways and in very different circumstances.” (77) This key insight opened his mind to how Christianity might develop differently beyond Canadian and American borders.
Don Church was another friend who influenced Noll by creating a way for Wheaton professors to travel over to Romania in order to train pastors. This experience opened the doors of cross cultural understanding. Witnessing Romania’s church before and after the fall of communism also provided insights into the influence that the Western church can have abroad, both for better and for worse.
When Andrew Walls visited Wheaton to lecture on world Christianity, Noll found what he calls his “lodestar”. He summarizes Walls influence on him into three insights. First, Christianity is both a particular and a universal faith; second, cross cultural Christian movements have always stimulated theology; and third, world Christianity “…displays the essential character of Christianity itself.” (93-96) These insights helped to form a structural basis for his developing understanding of God’s work in the world.