Mark Noll is one of the most important academics of Christianity in the world. He is a historian, but the implications of his work go far beyond history. Personally, the most important book of his that I have read it The Civil War and Theological Crisis. That book looked at how Christians of an earlier generation had worked through cultural change and there were many implications for how we can now work through cultural change.
In The New Shape of World Christianity, Noll makes a subtle argument. Simply, Noll argues that American Christianity is important to worldwide Christianity not so much because it is leading the world, but more because the world’s culture is changing in ways that are similar to the ways that the United States is changing. Noll is clear that it is not that the world is becoming like the US, as much as it is that the cultural pressures (globalization) that the US is facing are also facing the rest of the world. It is just that the US is a bit in front of the rest of the world in many of these cultural changes and pressures.
In Noll’s words:
“The main point of this book is that American Christianity is important for the world primarily because the world is coming more and more to look like America. Therefore, the way that Christianity developed in the American environment helps to explain the way Christianity is developing in many parts of the world. But correlation is not causation: the fact that globalization and other factors have created societies that resemble in many ways what Americans experienced in the frontier period of their history does not mean that Americans are dictating to the world. It means, instead, that understanding American patterns provides insight for what has been happening elsewhere in the world.’”
Noll uses several examples of where other groups of Christians were changing in very similar ways to the US but doing it for cultural reasons, not because the United States was influencing. The US will be important in world Christianity for a very long time, if for no other reason than money. The US is by far the richest church in the world. It sends out the most missionaries, it supports the most social projects, it has the largest media influence, it writes the most books, etc.
But Noll also shows how the US learns from Christianity around the world and from the critique of Christians around the world. This quote is as true today as it was when it was written:
“Americans are great people; there is no doubt about that. They are great in building cities and railroads…. Americans have a wonderful genius for improving breeds of horses, cattle, sheep and swine…. Americans too are great inventors…. Needless to say, they are great in money… Americans are great in all these things and much else; but not in Religion…. Americans must count religion in order to see or show its value…. To them big churches are successful churches…. To win the greatest number of converts with the least expense is their constant endeavour. Statistics is their way of showing success or failure in their religion as in their commerce and politics. Numbers, numbers, oh, how they value numbers!” (Kanzo Uchimura, a Japanese Christian educated in the US writing in 1926)
This is an academic and historical study. While it is not long and not particularly dense, it is academically focused. If you only read part of it, I would read the first and last chapters. The majority of the thesis is in these two parts and the rest is supporting material. It is well worth reading, but not as important as a couple of Noll’s other books.
I won the hardcover of this book in a IVP giveaway. I have had it on my shelf for over a year before I bought the kindle version when it was on sale. I will give away the hardback to the first person that asks. Leave a comment below. Please only ask if you want to read the book.
Other Bookwi.se Reviews of Books by Mark Noll
- Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom
- The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark Noll
- Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Noll