A Feature Review of
Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa
Reviewed by Tim Høiland
There has been much talk in recent decades about the shift in the center of gravity in global Christianity from the west and the north to the south and the east, and books like The Next Christendom by Baylor historian Philip Jenkins have brought the conversation to a popular level. Indeed, the numbers are indisputable. While churches in much of Europe and North America have seen declining and stagnating attendance levels, respectively, the pattern does not hold elsewhere in the world. Rather, throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America there has been a remarkable degree of Christian dynamism and numerical growth, especially in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
Whereas the Global South has long been seen as “the mission field,” the tables are increasingly being turned, and the implications for churches, global mission agencies, faith-based NGOs, and Christian institutions of higher learning cannot be overstated. What can our brothers and sisters closer to Christianity’s new center of gravity teach us about our common faith? In what ways would we do well to rethink our long-held assumptions and practices?
Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa, the second installment in a new series of books from Baker Academic called Turning South, is a memoir of Susan VanZanten’s literary, theological, and spiritual journey. The story begins in her close-knit and conservative Dutch Reformed community in the Pacific Northwest, leading through various educational institutions as a student and then as a teacher, all the while discerning her calling as a literature professor. We trace the contours of her intellectual and scholarly life from an early interest in Flannery O’Connor to a dissertation on Moby-Dick and ultimately to a keen interest in the literature of South Africa.
Many of us, myself included, take for granted the ready accessibility these days of books written by authors from around the world. Among the books in my home library are works with spines bearing names like Achebe, Beah, Coelho, Tutu, Hosseini, Perez Esquivel, Rusesabagina, Chang, Sen, Escobar, Katongole, Satrapi… and the list goes on. Few of these required going very far off the beaten path to acquire. But such access has not always been the case, as VanZanten reminds us. Indeed, it’s one of globalization’s blessings that we can now learn more about the world around us than ever before.