An informal review of Brian Stiller’s From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity
By David Guretzki, the EFC’s Executive Vice-President and Resident Theologian
There are two kinds of readers: those who read one book at a time, and those who have many on the go at the same time. I’m one of the latter types, and it’s our job to drive the former group crazy.
However, I recently had the unusual experience of binge reading a 200-page book from start to finish in one sitting (though I admit I broke for coffee and lunch in the middle).
How did that happen? What kept me engaged?
The book was Brian Stiller’s newest, From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity (InterVarsity, 2018). For starters, it helps that Stiller’s written style is as engaging as he is in person. You can almost hear him talking as you read this book.
I also love how Stiller writes from a 30,000-foot perspective – or perhaps in this case 100,000-foot! This book is about big picture stuff. How has the Church been growing around the world in the last century? What’s making this possible in an age when many thought religion was about to die?
Yet even though it seeks to answer big questions, there are more than enough down-to-earth details and stories to keep you reading.
But I’m also enthusiastic about the book because I’m confident in its author. So, who is Brian Stiller?
Although long-time EFC supporters may remember Stiller as former president of this organization (1983-1997), today he is the global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance. He also remains a key figure in the Canadian evangelical movement, having spent decades serving and leading other important Canadian organizations including Youth for Christ and Tyndale University. In the past decade he has crisscrossed the globe (I’d like to see his Air Miles account!) visiting and serving the international church.
In short I know of few, if any, in Canada who are more qualified than Stiller to see things from a truly global perspective.
That perspective, and the goal of his new book, become evident in his preface. Stiller writes,
Be it in my home country of Canada or in visiting abroad, I was asked to speak on what I was seeing globally. In study and research, reflection, conversation, and observation, I saw particular forces (or as I note, drivers) at work, growing and reshaping the church. I tested these with missiologists, seeking to fairly and accurately identify what is at work today in our global Christian community.
In other words, in a mere 200 or so pages, Stiller attempts to make sense of how the Church has and is growing globally, especially over the last century. Yes, he takes some literary and scholarly risks that specialized historians simply can’t take. Yes, he makes some pretty big generalizations that other expert observers of the global church may dispute. But that is, in my opinion, the reason the book is so worth reading – because Stiller at least tries to give a broad view of how and why the Church has continued to grow. The fact is, such analyses of the growth of the Church can far too easy to get bogged down in minutiae. Stiller studiously avoids that strategy, and I think the book is the better for it.
Stiller understands the power of story. So, he tells dozens of them, mostly from his own global, personal experience, to illustrate his points. I love how he transitions from Canada to Vietnam to Russian to Argentina to Britain in the course of a couple of paragraphs. I love how he draws from Pentecostal, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran figures over the course of a few pages. Reading the book you get the sense Stiller isn’t claiming to be an expert as much as he is expressing firsthand experiences and a lifetime of reflection, study and ministry. We all need the experts, but we also need someone who has been there and done that. That’s really what Stiller brings that few others can.
But even apart from the readability and accessibility of the book is how inspiring it is to read. It’s been a long time since I’ve read something that truly excited me, maybe because so much of my professional life as a theologian is caught up in careful analysis and critique of varying viewpoints.
Instead, Stiller gave me a book that celebrates the Christian movement in ways that in recent times we in the West have, for politically and ecclesiastically correct reasons, been largely unable to do. Indeed, we Western Christians (and perhaps I’m taking aim here at my own sector, the academic specialists) have done more apologizing in past decades for the failures of Christianity than celebrating its gains.
Of course there are many things for which the Church should apologize. We Canadians are all very good at that. Most of us know by now how often and how spectacularly we have failed.
But in the midst of our apt apologies, we have sometimes forgotten (and I think Stiller would be happy for me to say it this way) that the Holy Spirit continues to be the Spirit of the Church. Despite her flaws and failures, the Church, by the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit, continues to explode and expand into our world. Perhaps we’ve so agonized about our failures, our squabbles and our pettiness at times that we’ve forgotten the miracle of how Christianity continues to grow and abound against all the expectations of professional historians, philosophers and demographers.
In that regard, I confess I needed Stiller to remind me Christianity is far from dead and that the Majority World’s adoption of Christian faith is much more the norm than North American religious cynicism and suspicion. There is no doubt a fine line to draw between godly and ungodly pride, but I have to admit that finishing Stiller’s book made me feel, well, proud to be a very small part of this weird and wonderful thing called “the body of Christ, the Church.”
So what does Stiller actually accomplish in the book?
The bulk of the book expands on what Stiller identifies as five major drivers of Christianity’s global expansion in the last two centuries: 1. A more robust trinitarian faith that readily experiences the reality of the Holy Spirit; 2. The translation of Scripture into vernacular languages; 3. The push for locally grown leaders and ideas (indigenization); 4. Re-engagement of the public square; and 5. A holistic concern that the gospel reaches every sphere of human life and experience.
For each chapter, Stiller draws on anecdotes – personal, historical and global – to illustrate his points. For me these five core chapter were not only inspiring, but at every turn managed to challenge some of my own assumptions, or at least remind me of some fundamental assumptions that I have all too often taken for granted. For example, in his chapter on the importance of Bible translation, I was reminded afresh what a privilege it is to have Scripture available so readily to me, and yet how often I fail to dwell in its riches. I also loved how Stiller pointed out how the Bible is able to become every culture’s own book and has done so successfully thousands of times over.
In the end it is likely that specialists in the history and sociology of Christianity will chafe at Stiller’s 30,000/100,000-foot approach. Others won’t like his obvious preference toward Pentecostal and charismatic manifestations of the Church. Still others will think he overlooks or smoothes over real theological difficulties. Those may all be valid critiques. However, it will not be so easy to criticize Stiller for at least trying to interpret the Christian movement as concisely and compellingly as he has.
Consequently, for those who decide to read this book (and I hope many do), they should not read it if it were a grand history of Christianity. It simply isn’t. Rather, it is one man’s flawed but passionate attempt (whose attempt wouldn’t be?) to make sense of the big picture – to answer in as compelling a way as possible how we can explain the growth of Christianity in a historical period where religion was supposedly ready to disappear. The challenge for the critic will be: Can you propose a better grand picture than Stiller has provided? I’m sure someone could. But the thing is, so few try, and I’m glad Stiller has given this as a gift to the church. And perhaps as a gauntlet thrown down for others to try.
So, if you want a scholarly, detailed history of the growth of world Christianity in the last 100 or 200 years, don’t get this book. But if you want an inspiring interpretation of global Christianity that challenges you to re-think the manifold and surprisingly ways Jesus is building His Church, then by all means, get this book – and share it with a friend.
Author: David Guretzki