Brian Stanley on Christianity in the Twentieth Century

StanleyChristianity in the Twentieth Century charts the transformation of one of the world’s great religions during an age marked by world wars, genocide, nationalism, decolonization, and powerful ideological currents, many of them hostile to Christianity. Written by a leading scholar of world Christianity, the book traces how Christianity evolved from a religion defined by the culture and politics of Europe to the expanding polycentric and multicultural faith it is today—one whose growing popular support is strongest in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, China, and other parts of Asia. Transnational in scope and drawing on the latest scholarship, Christianity in the Twentieth Century demonstrates how Christianity has had less to fear from the onslaughts of secularism than from the readiness of Christians themselves to accommodate their faith to ideologies that privilege racial identity or radical individualism.

Have there been any previous world histories of Christianity in the twentieth century before?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is only one or two, and they tend to be shorter text-book surveys that concentrate on Christianity in the Western world. There are several good one-volume histories of Christianity, and a few introductions to the contemporary reality of Christianity as a world religion, but historians of religion have generally avoided the twentieth century. They have been much more interested in the nineteenth century, when the churches were wrestling with the problems of industrial society and the questions raised by modern science and biblical criticism. The implicit, and false, assumption seemed to be that by about 1914 the crucial issues had all been decided, and that it was all downhill for Christian belief from then on.

What has been the biggest challenge in writing it?

Having written the book, I can readily appreciate why nobody has attempted quite this sort of project before: the need to try to do justice to all continents and all strands of the Christian tradition has made this the most difficult book I have ever undertaken.

Possibly the stiffest challenge has been deciding what to leave out, since no book of this nature can be totally comprehensive. I had to make my own decisions about which case studies to include and which to omit, and inevitably these decisions become quite personal. Another historian coming from a different sector of the Church and possessing different expertise would make a different selection.

Do you think Christianity was weaker or stronger in the year 2000 than it was in 1900?

Undoubtedly stronger, at least in terms of its global reach and its absolute numerical strength. Christianity by the end of the century was truly a global religion in a way it was not in 1900, despite all the efforts of Victorian missionary expansion.  Many parts of the Christian community had also discovered new sources of vibrant spirituality and confidence in their sense of mission, though it is hard for hard-pressed Christians in Europe or the eastern seaboard of the United States to appreciate that. But this is not a triumphalistic narrative of Christian progress: the churches in every continent in the twentieth century had to negotiate obstacles that were, if anything, even greater than those they had faced in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the percentage of the world population in 2000 that professed Christian allegiance was marginally lower than it was in 1900.

What challenges does your book pose to Christians?

It will force them to ask hard questions about the frequent failure of their predecessors to preserve the integrity of Christian faith in the face of enormous pressures—and I am not thinking of the pressures of overt state persecution so much as the insidious attractions of alluring ideologies that gnawed away at the fabric of historic Christian belief from the inside. The Church in every age, including our own, faces such pressures, and it is not very good at spotting them when they come along.

And what challenges does it pose to those who are not Christians?

My book suggests that the once-popular grand narrative of the twentieth century as the age of irreversible secularization on a global scale is demonstrably false, even though, as I have just acknowledged, the churches too often laid themselves open to racist or materialist perspectives that subverted the foundations of Christian belief. The history of Christianity is a constantly fluctuating narrative in which multiple challenges, such as those of injustice and oppression, provoke remarkable resurgences of Christian faith. These in turn invite their own contrary reactions whenever growing churches become too powerful or comfortable for their own spiritual good. Both believers and unbelievers should be challenged by this book.

What predictions would you make about the shape of Christianity in the year 2100?

My stock answer to this question is to say that the future is not my period. Most predictions made in 1900 about the spiritual course of the century to come—whether from Christian or atheistic sources—proved spectacularly wrong. Hence caution is the order of the day. But it seems likely that Christianity will continue to diversify in its multiple centers of gravity, and that its historic European lines of division inherited from the Reformation era will continue to fade in importance, being replaced by other fault lines of a more cultural nature. The current arguments over sexuality are one obvious example of that. Whatever the world Church will look like in 2100, it is probable that it will need another historian ambitious (or foolish!) enough to attempt a century from now to explain exactly what has changed, and why.

Brian Stanley is professor of world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. His books include The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott and The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910.