Review of Dyron Daughrity, The Changing World of Christianity

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 3, September 2010

Review of Dyron Daughrity, The Changing World of Christianity (New York, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), 290 pp. ISBN 978-14331-0452-7.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Dyron Daughrity teaches World Christianity at Pepperdine University in southern California. He rightly believes that such a course should now be taught from a global perspective and no longer with the earlier emphases on Europe or North America. Today there are far more Christians in Africa than in Western Europe or North America. The region of Latin America and the Caribbean is easily the most Christianized part of the world. These facts represent a changing of the guard. So this new text book reflects these new positions and stresses not only the geographical spread of Christianity, but also the fact that it is the most global, most diverse and perhaps the most influential religion in history. Such a comprehensive survey in the space of less than three hundred pages requires not only a skilful absorption of secondary sources, but also an ecumenical and eirenic disposition and an ability to adopt a judicious balance between the various components of such a study. It is good to say that Daughrity admirably displays these characteristics. While there is no complete bibliography, each chapter has extensive footnotes for the sources used, as well as questions appended for analysis which are designed to prompt further discussion. Despite some passages which call for greater precision and depth, Daughrity’s lucid style makes for easy undergraduate reading.

Daughrity’s approach is geographical, dividing the world into eight regions, but beginning with the historical evolution from the Middle East and ending in Oceania, suitably for the world’s largest faith. Following the lead of such current scholars as Lammin Sanneh and Philip Jenkins, Daughrity traces the shift in numbers from the northern hemisphere to the south, when he sees the tipping point as occurring around 1980. The reception of the Christian message as brought by earlier northern missionaries made all the difference, and demography will maintain the momentum. While he warns that religious growth is uncontrollable and unpredictable, he is clearly optimistic for the future of Christianity, especially in its more free-flowing Pentecostal forms.

His survey of each region begins with a general description of the political and social background, followed by a section on the background of Christianity in this area. He then moves to an examination of present-day Christianity, followed by a short piece on each country. This allows him to make interesting and sometimes provocative comparisons. For instance, he suggests that the present weakness of Christianity in the Middle East can be traced back to the divisions in Christian ranks at the time of the Muslim conquests. The solidarity of Islam and its tighter control over its adherents has prevented any Christian resurgence. By contrast, the defeat of Muslim forces in Spain in the late Middle Ages can be attributed to the solidarity – fanaticism? – shown by the Catholics of that region. He even suggests that, had Ferdinand and Isabella failed, then the whole exploration of the New World might well have been undertaken by Muslims.

In Eastern Europe, Daughrity of course welcomes the overthrow of Communist rule with its attendant persecution of the churches, but suggests that in Russia, the residue of the Soviet oppression of faith is like a cultural mist which does not evaporate instantaneously. In Hungary, however, the overthrow of Communist rule has revived freedom of religion and made that country a leading example of religious pluralism.

Turning to Western Europe, Daughrity explores the reasons why this region, which was Christianity’s heartland for so many centuries, is presently experiencing a period of increased scepticism and secularism. Europe for so long provided the leadership corps, widened the theological and scholarly horizons and mobilized the missionary forces which carried Christianity to all corners of the globe. But in recent decades a widespread disillusionment with “organized religion” has been notable. In part, the political changes of the last two centuries have almost everywhere broken the ties between Church and State which were increasingly seen as barriers to individual freedom, or to some at least a hindrance to spiritual growth. Furthermore the rapid changes in immigration and demographic patterns have led to a pluralisation of religious allegiances in Europe. Many people now fear that Islam may become the predominant religion in twenty-first century Europe. The “De-Christianization of Europe” is already being discussed. At the same time, the two major wars of the last century undoubtedly challenged all authority patterns. Dietrich Bonhoeffer provocatively argued in favour of a religionless Christianity, one where Christian social ethics would be practised without the burden of authority or doctrine. Daughrity supports the view taken by Grace Davie that Western Europeans are in a phase of “believing but not belonging”. When humanitarian movements strikingly follow Christianity’s prophetic voice, one could argue that, in this sense, Christianity is being reinvented.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, despite the brutal even genocidal manner of Christianity’s introduction five centuries ago, this region nevertheless now encompasses the heartland of Christianity. Paradoxically, this legacy imposed by the European conquerors is now vibrant and indigenized. But it still contains overtones of injustice, especially towards the original native peoples. Predominantly Catholic,Latin America nevertheless has seen an explosive growth of Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism. This community has the advantage of a much more flexible church polity and is free from the regrettable burden of Catholic history.

In his account of Christianity inNorth America, Daughrity lays stress on the darker side of the impact on native peoples and the long support for slavery. Nevertheless, its ethos is very different from that found inEurope. The absence of any politically dominant state church led to an amazing plurality of Christian endeavours, particularly in revivals, which have continued to the present. This resilient tradition, he hopes, will be enough to counter the corrupting influence of acquisitive capitalism.

The remarkable fact about Asiais that Christianity, as brought by European colonialists, has expanded rapidly now that the imperial era is finished. The successful indigenization of this originally Asian faith has seemingly been able to avoid the kind of syncretism which has weakened Christian witness elsewhere. Yet Asiais still riven by religious conflicts, especially in Muslim majority areas, and the future of Christianity remains problematic.

Africa is now second to Latin America in having the most Christians in a cultural block. Again, this growth has accelerated after decolonization. While Ethiopiacan boast of a continuous Christian adherence without European intervention since the early centuries, most of the continent’s Christians resulted from the nineteenth century missionaries’ activities, both Protestants and Catholics, of such well-known figures as David Livingstone. Today,Africa as a whole struggles to find political and social models of its own. The lack of success may perhaps be attributed to past colonialism, or to the effect of the slave trade, or to the indigenous poverty which hampers the kind of developments seen in Asia. Nevertheless, the faith thrives. Daughrity’s survey of the background of African Independent Churches is very helpful. His conclusion that Africa is suffused with religion seems well documented.

Finally there is Oceania, where a multiplicity of Christian influences has spread across the many archipelagos, making Christianity the most universally accepted and integrated cultural force. But this process is severely understudied, due to the marginalization of Christian missionary work by anthropologists who concentrated on tribal indigenous cultures. Daughrity pleads for a more balanced account of Christianity’s contribution to this fascinating and far-flung area.

One hundred years ago, Protestant missionaries were calling for the “evangelization of the world in this generation”. Daughrity claims that this goal has now been achieved in that every part of the globe has heard the call of Christ and the responses are still reverberating. Christianity, in its various and sometimes conflicting forms, affects virtually every country and society. Daughrity’s survey of the various factors involved in this world-wide process will be appreciated by students as a valuable guide for further and deeper investigation.