From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story
On Thursday, October 30, an international panel of scholars assembled in Barrows Auditorium at the Billy Graham Center on the campus of Wheaton College, Illinois, U.S.A. If ever there was an epicenter of the evangelical movement, this was it. The topic was, “A Movement for the 21st Century: The Future of Evangelicalism.” As two hundred people listened in hushed silence, what would be the prognosis for evangelicalism? Are the glory days over? Is evangelicalism on life support? Does it face a slow demise or a sudden end?
Because the gathering marked the final public event of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), an organization founded in 1982 to encourage the study of evangelical Christianity in North America and thereby foster understanding of evangelicalism among both evangelicals and non-evangelicals, the mood in the auditorium was noticeably subdued. There would be no more reunions among this family of scholars.
While each of the panelists, David Bebbington (Stirling University, Scotland), Nathan Hatch (President, Wake Forest University), Mark Hutchison (The Scots College-Australia), and Grant Wacker (Duke Divinity School) gave helpful and insightful analyses of evangelicalism’s past and future, it was the final panelist that held special interest to this reviewer.
Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and former professor at Wheaton College, is the author of dozens of books dealing with the history of North American evangelicalism, but no book sends out more ripples from the epicenter of evangelicalism than his latest autobiographical work, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story.
The book is the third work in the “Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity” series (other volumes are: Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South by Nicholas Wolterstorff and Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa by Susan VanZanten), which aims to inspire a rising generation of Christian scholars in the Northern Hemisphere to engage thoughtfully with the rapidly expanding church in the Southern Hemisphere.
Noll was asked to contribute to this series by writing a personal narrative describing his journey to the belief that full attention to the non-Western world is now essential for anyone to reasonably grasp the history of Christianity. In other words, this Western church historian, steeped in a tradition which gave primary focus to European and American contributions to the history of Christianity, was being asked to explain how, while holding down his day job teaching American church history at Wheaton and Notre Dame, his heart had become strangely awakened to the global dimensions of Christ’s kingdom. Why was he now teaching courses on world Christian history?
If you are familiar with Noll’s other works, such as America’s God, The Rise of Evangelicalism, The Old Religion in the New World, and even The Scandal of the American Mind and Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, you need to know that From Every Tribe and Nation is not your father’s Oldsmobile. It drives differently than his other books and, I might add, it handles well through some sharp and unexpected turns.
Purposefully autobiographical, Noll begins with his upbringing in the heartland of America at the very missions minded Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Missionaries were common guests around the Noll dinner table and his parents made several trips to be with missionaries on various continents of the world. Noll recounts what it was like when he learned, as a ten-year old boy, that Jim Elliott and his four missionary companions were speared to death on an Ecuadorian beach by the Waoranis.
Steeped in a church sub-culture that elevated missionary heroes and feasting on books such as Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testimony of Jim Elliot, Jungle Doctor and Behind the Ranges, Noll was in for a rude awakening when he later discovers that there was more involved in the missions enterprise than initially met the eyes of a young boy immersed in the texts of missionary hagiography. What does a young scholar do when he comes to realize that even in missions things are not perfect? What does he do when he perceives an insensitivity to local contexts, lack of interest in historical background, absence of attention to cultural connections, and most distressing to Noll, an absence of maps?
The author traces the pilgrimage God brought him on from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Wheaton, Illinois, a pilgrimage which unfortunately was long on law and ambiguous on grace. Noll’s second chapter, “Rescued by the Reformation,” will strike a resonant chord with many readers. You will find yourself saying as you read, “that happened to me too!”
In chapter three Noll traces the teachers that influenced him at Wheaton, the University of Iowa, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Vanderbilt University. Though he was unaware at the time, Noll now looks back and clearly sees that through these teachers the Holy Spirit was bringing God’s grace to him. Memo to all readers engaged in teaching the next generation: keep sowing the seed!
As Noll settles into the life of an academician, he unfolds in the middle chapters of his book how various influences began to open the window of his soul to the world. His involvement with the Reformed Journal and the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) were crucial in his early teaching and writing career. Noll then traces the key individuals, most notably George Rawlyk (a hulking Ukranian-Oxford Rhodes Scholar-Professional Football player turned historian) in 1984 and Andrew Walls, a Scotsman who turned Noll’s world-upside down in 1986.
As Noll narrates his story you will find colorful stories, self-disclosing poetry and crisply worded distillations of the process by which Noll becomes a globally aware scholar and Christian. I appreciated reading Noll’s accounts of his forays into cross-cultural work, especially his teaching trips in Romania in the summers of 1989 and 1991. The former trip occurred during the dying days of European communism, Noll being allowed to take one Bible in his suitcase but no lecture notes. Noll scratched only dates on an index card to jog his memory while teaching—70, 325, 381, 451, 800, 1054, 1517. What sounds like a quarterback’s audible actually became the basis of his book Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Who knew? Two years later, Noll returns to a different Romania as a different man.
As Noll’s academic professional life develops, the disciplines of history and missiology converge in a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, as Noll studies the explosion of both English-language and foreign-language editions of the Bible published in America from 1860-1925, he discovers how throughout the history of Christianity the translation of Scripture into local, vernacular tongues leads not only to the spread of faith, but also to cultural influence. Through the work of Lamin Sanneh, Noll discovers a historiography with a new perspective: “here was a historiography that focused not on what the missionaries did when they translated, as had the missionary accounts I knew from the decades before, but rather on what happened among the people who received the Bible in their own language” (p.123).
Noll has now come full circle. He no longer views missionary accounts from the vantage point of heroic Western missionaries overcoming tremendous obstacles, including death itself, in the name of kingdom success. Rather, without minimizing the missionaries’ accomplishments, Noll now sees a bigger picture from the vantage point of those who receive the gospel. Hence the name of the book: From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story.
If you enjoy history, missions, and reflective autobiography, you will enjoy this book. Many have commented that there is a “scarlet cord” running through the Scriptures, the cord of redemptive history culminating in Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. There is also a “cord of many colors,” as people from every tribe and nation are redeemed by Christ’s blood. Noll traces his pilgrimage in discovering that cord of many colors, through the many divine providences God brings into his life. We all benefit from Noll’s story, as he helps us to see the cord of many colors woven into Scripture through the centuries and in our world today.
On a personal note, for thirty years as a pastor it was my privilege to lift up Christ in my preaching, helping people to grasp the scarlet cord. Now, as a servant-teacher of pastors around Christ’s global kingdom, part of my calling is to help American Christians see the beauty of the multi-colored cord. Toward that end, as I read From Every Tribe and Nation I jotted down these takeaways on the flyleaf:
1. Develop a keen eye to observe the culture of our brothers and sisters in Christ among foreign lands;
2. Ask my colleagues each night as we debrief after a day of teaching overseas, “how was your theology deepened and enriched by your cross-cultural experience today?”;
3. Write to your friends, supporters and prayer partners in such a way that they too become “world Christians”, seeing the beauty of Christ’s global kingdom.
What is the future of the evangelical church in America? Frankly, I can’t remember Mark Noll’s answer at the panel discussion. But, I know his heart is captured by the dawn of great day for the evangel among the nations. As the prophet Malachi spoke: “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations…says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 1:11).