Prayers for Peace: A Review of “Christianity in the Twentieth Century”

September 29, 2018
Title: Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History
Author: Brian Stanley
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publishing Date: June 26, 2018
Pages: 502 pages
ISBN: 978-0691157108

Secularization. Disunity within the faith. Christians standing by—even participating—in horrific acts of genocide. These acts are some of the sobering issues that Brian Stanley explores in his ambitious, one-volume history of twentieth-century Christianity. There are some hopeful elements in the book, like Christianity’s challenge to secularism and the fact that Christians no longer seem to bifurcate into “evangelism” and “social justice” camps, but I came away from reading Christianity in the Twentieth Century with the feeling that I needed to repent. I came away feeling that the global Church to which I belong has not been very faithful to its cruciform identity. If you’re looking for a book to take to the beach, this is probably not the book for you. But if you want an informative and stimulating picture of global Christianity, read this book.

Stanley’s primary question is “how the churches of the world got to be the way they were in specific geographical locations at crucial turning points in the course of the century” (4). Rather than answering this question with a chronological narrative, he answers it by selecting themes that have characterized twentieth-century Christianity. Each chapter begins with an introduction, followed by two case studies illustrating the theme and a conclusion drawing the ideas together. The book jumps around. One minute you’re in Egypt looking at Muslim-Christian relations and the next you’re exploring Pentecostalism in Brazil. For some, this may be too jarring, but in my estimation, the thematic/case study approach is exactly what the task of defining twentieth-century Christianity demands. I get frustrated when I read descriptions of “Christianity” that only treat one form of Christianity (i.e. American Christianity or Protestant Christianity). One of the virtues of Stanley’s book is its global, interdenominational approach. Sure, Stanley’s own expertise as a historian of modern, Protestant missions means that his grasp of Catholic and Orthodox history is less nuanced, but at least he has incorporated these major branches of the church into his story. Such an approach is not only more honest it is also more stimulating. For example, in the chapter on Christianity and nationalism, he places “Catholic nationalism in Poland” alongside “Protestant nationalism in Korea.” The average reader doesn’t know much about either area, but this doesn’t matter. Stanley brings us up to speed and in the process gives us a transnational perspective that enables us to more carefully consider the relationship between Christianity and nationalism in our own context. He also whispers in our ear: “Christianity and nationalism make uneasy bedfellows.” And what he means is this: “Nationalism feeds off opposition to those who are perceived as enemies of the nation, and hence stands in perpetual tension with the injunction of Christ to love our enemies.” (56). Here is a history written by a missiologist! His purpose is not only to inform but also to incite the church to a deeper imitation of our crucified Lord.

One reason I like this book is that it challenges us to tell the truth about the sin in our Christian past—the ways that we sell out to secular culture, the ways we fall hopelessly short of being the one church with “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” the ways that far too often we Christians do not occupy the moral high ground. The hardest chapter to read is about how Christian theology played a role in creating Nazi Germany and the Rwandan Genocide. We certainly don’t usually talk about that in a highlights reel of twentieth-century Christian history. We like to take comfort in the Confessing Church movement and Bonhoeffer. But Stanley’s book is not about the heroes. It is about the themes that marked the last century. And tragically, one of those themes was the “impotence of faith to resist the destructive power of racial hatred” (153). Stanley’s book is not triumphant history, it is challenging history. But it is necessary history. We need to wrestle with these issues because they are still with us. Stanley tell us that “ethnic and racial divisions between different sections of humanity were becoming sharper and more absolute” during the twentieth century (361). Stanley’s book reminds us to pray for peace.

Throughout the book, Stanley participates in a debate that will be of interest to anyone who has found themselves either curious about or frustrated by the appeal of the megachurch in our age. Is the megachurch a sign that church-going in America is on the rise? Is it a kind of missional response to the needs of our age? Or is the megachurch actually a sign that American religion has sold out to culture. People talk about “American exceptionalism”—the idea that even though religious adherence in Europe is falling, America is still a church-going nation. However, several proponents of the “secularization thesis” (like Steve Bruce, one of Stanley’s conversation partners) argue that the megachurch is simply a different expression of the same kind of secularization that we see happening in Europe. Sure, more people go to church in the U.S., says Bruce, but their churches have been so infused with the self and entertainment-focused consumeristic culture that they bear little similarity to the faith of historic Christian orthodoxy.1

Stanley brings arguments like this to our attention and infuses these arguments with new elements. I could read many books about American megachurches and secularization, but how many books would also show how immigrant churches undermine the secularization thesis (Chapter 15)? And how many books would also explore the complex relationship between “belonging and believing” in various parts of the world to show that even Europe is not a simple story of secularization (Chapter 4-5)? And how many books would also challenge us to consider how certain forms of Pentecostalism have compromised the gospel in their emphasis on material wealth (Chapter 13)? A major strength of Stanley’s book is its breadth and its ability to stimulate your thinking from multiple angles.

The only angle I wished Stanley would have given more thought to is the angle of gender. Granted, he has one chapter dedicated to the topic (Chapter 12, which discusses women’s ordination and gay rights), but there’s another topic that doesn’t even make the cut. The twentieth century saw a major shift from arranged marriage to spouse self-selection, a shift that Christianity helped to bring about. Stanley claims that his book is a history of popular Christianity. I think the shift to spouse self-selection and marrying for love has been a huge and overlooked aspect of popular Christianity and should have found a place in his book (but I’m also secretly glad he didn’t address this because it is the topic of the book that I’m currently working on).

My only other critique of the book is that I would have preferred to see the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church wrapped into other chapters instead of giving them a chapter to themselves without a discernable theme. Perhaps Stanley could have worked the Orthodox emphasis on liturgy and worship into his chapter on missiology. The idea of worship as mission (so beautifully expressed in Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World) would have made a wonderful addition to the discussion about evangelism and social justice as mission and would have tied together Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox history in a meaningful way.

Overall, however, I have nothing but good things to say about Christianity in the Twentieth Century. Stanley may not cover every square inch, but he does give us a realistic and thought-provoking summary of twentieth-century Christianity.

About the Author
  • Anneke Stasson is Associate Professor of Humanities and History in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University. She grew up in Olympia, WA and followed her parents and grandparents in graduating from Calvin College in 2003. She received her MA in Church History from Regent College in Vancouver, BC and her Ph.D. from Boston University, where she studied the History of Christianity, Global Christianity, and the History of Missions. Anneke’s dissertation was on twentieth-century missionaries and marriage counselors Walter and Ingrid Trobisch. Her current research continues to address the relationship between Christianity and cultural conceptions of gender, marriage, and family life. Anneke and her husband, Steve, have four kids, Mary Lou, Eleanor, Ruthann, and Joseph, all of whom enjoy raising chickens, turkeys, sheep, and cows on their little farm just north of Marion, IN.

  1. For an excellent article on this, see the following in All things article:   

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