Retelling the Story of the Church: Jehu Hanciles and the Importance of Migration

September 20, 2021
Title: Migration and the Making of Global Christianity
Author: Jehu J. Hanciles
Publisher: Eerdmans
Publishing Date: March 16, 2021
Pages: 464 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0802875624

The last fifteen years in Christian scholarship have seen an explosion of work on immigration, and thankfully so. From biblical theologies to immigration ethics to first-hand memoirs to theologies of migration to careful articulations of Christianity within the majority world, there is much to celebrate, and far more for Christians to read. But lingering under this body of work is a tacit thesis that while Scripture speaks amply about immigration, and the 20th century has seen an explosion of migration, there is little to discuss between those epochs. This is a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. Occasionally, a work on the medieval mendicants, or the development of the missions movement, will explore the dynamics of movement and its effect on Christian history; studies on global Christianity likewise largely locate their treatments of migration to more modern iterations, to show how the emergence of “world Christianity” and migration are related. But until Hancile’s recent work, there remained a prominent gap between the world of Scripture and the world of modern diasporas: an entire history remained unexplored, synthesized, known in fragments and pieces, but scattered.  

Hanciles’ work, which covers the ways in which migration shaped Christianity from the days of the patriarchs through the end of the medieval era, provides a comprehensive overview, does not only give great insight into the material ways in which migration made possible the well-known Christian histories of missions, intra-cultural conflicts, persecution, and industry. That alone would be accomplishment enough for one book. Hanciles wants to recover a broader vision, however, in which the main actors are not merely official emissaries, sanctioned missionaries, and colonial powers. By foregrounding his history with concerns for how conversion happens in ordinary forms, Hanciles draws from the more overt ways in which migration and travel affect the course of Christian history, but also the ways in which ordinary, anonymous travelers bring Christianity with them into new and uncharted worlds. The spread of Christianity globally was thus, according to Hanciles, both formal and informal, both a work of intentional organization and a work of ordinary Christians, making for a Christianity which becomes infused into cultures in ways which both cohere and diverge from officially received forms. 

“…until Hancile’s recent work, there remained a prominent gap between the world of Scripture and the world of modern diasporas: an entire history remained unexplored, synthesized, known in fragments and pieces, but scattered.”

Instead of parsing out migration into categories of “voluntary/forced,” Hanciles treats these migrations as a single, complex story, in which Christianity moves, and then changes, in unexpected ways, as borders are crossed, cultures come into contact, and religions are shaped by their exposure to new territories and contexts. The “voluntary/forced migration” distinction is helpful insofar as it gives us a better sense of what kind of agency migrants had in a place, but from Hanciles’ perspective, obscures the ways in which, when a person travels, their presence in a new place is frequently limited, and not only by the conditions of going into exile. The result of the book is the depiction of a new and invigorating dimension within which to place Christianity’s evolution into a global faith.  

Hanciles’ work is contrarian in some important ways, emphasizing the role of lay Christians over imperial work, and his perspective coheres well with much of the recent work in global Christianity. The role of innovation and contextual theology, underplayed in the past by emphasizing Christianity’s evolution as a development within received tradition, may be overplayed here, however, in this way: relatively little official documentation of lay movements, travelers, and ordinary migrants have come down to us in the ways that church council minutes, missionary journals, and official records have. What survives is known to us in large swaths of data concerning church growth, and official narratives in which we must read between the lines to ask what was happening on the ground to effect such large changes. At times, Hanciles draws too clean a line between the effect which imperially organized efforts at cultural engagement and informal, lay migration had.  

The recovery of the role of ordinary migration in the development of Christianity opens up the normative question as well: how are we to evaluate what eventuates through ordinary means of conversion as opposed to the official formulations of Christianity? And does this way of telling the story hold up? If migration (in both imperial and ordinary forms) affects the ways in which Christianity develops, is there a rubric to ascertain what value to assign to the different permutations? This question emerges as the different stories are told, but the question of what to make of the “Nestorian” controversies of the 5th century will serve as an example.  

The Chalcedonian definition of the faith (AD 451) was articulated in part to respond to teachings of the Constantopolitan bishop Nestorius. But what was decided in by predominately Western bishops (i.e. bishops from the Western part of the Roman empire) had little effect on the development of churches in Syria, Persia, and India: their affirmations of Christ’s nature and person was already set into motion, with the Council of Chalcedon coming nearly twenty years too late. The theology developing out of the Nestorian position was termed “Monophysite” and condemned as a heresy, though it was held by parts of the church beyond the official control of the Western bishops. Some of these wranglings were over how to properly read Scripture, but part of this was—as a number of church divisions were—a matter of churches talking past one another: what was confessed as orthodox in churches of Persia and India was largely similar to churches in Rome, though differing in some important nuances.  

“Hanciles’ work reminds the reader to attend to the Christian migrant, for it is through their bodies and their presence that the renewal of the church comes.”

What are we to make of the difference between the “imperial” definition of the faith put forward by the Council of Chalcedon (451) versus the “from the ground up” definition of the faith practiced by Persians, Indians, and Syrians? For Hanciles, this is how Christianity works: the faith spreads in occasionally disharmonious and contextual ways which are simply what happens when Christians enter into new cultures. But over time, the non-Chalcedonian formula becomes instantiated in liturgies in ways analogous to the Chalcedonian formula. Has the informal form of Christianity, practiced in Syria and in the Orthodox East, become the “imperial” form now? Or does it retain the designation of “from the ground up,” despite its confessional adoption? From Hanciles’ perspective, it is important that we not look only to the “imperial” version of the story of Christianity to understand how migration has shaped it, but to the informal ways the faith has unfolded. This is correct, I think, but this begs a bevy of normative questions concerning Christian doctrine which lie just beyond the purview of Hanciles’ work.  

Hanciles’ work is one which resituates our understanding of nearly 1400 years of church history, and does so in ways which leave few stones unturned. The result of nearly a decade of work was worth the wait, and will hopefully provide new ways to knit together church history with mission (in its manifold forms) in ways which both challenge and broaden the appreciation of students and scholars alike. For ultimately, it reminds us powerfully of how God has acted in history, through both formal and informal ways, through both the intentions of ecclesiastical initiatives and the anonymous, myriad bodies of travelers throughout time. Some of these we have names for, and call saints, and many of them are lost to history but remembered by God, living on through the fruit they bore in new, rooted forms of the faith in distant fields. In the end, Hanciles’ work reminds the reader to attend to the Christian migrant, for it is through their bodies and their presence that the renewal of the church comes.  

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

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