Distorted Mental Maps

Eddie Arthur would like to suggest that Everything You’ve Learned About Church History is Wrong. You don’t have to lean into the clickbaitiness of his title to see that has a point. I hope you take the five minutes or so it will cost you to read his post.

Here I just want to offer a brief supplement to what he said. First by saying that my own journey outside the Western story of Christianity has been immensely rewarding. Second, I would bolster his point with the following quote from Jehu Hanicles’ new book, Migration and the Making of Global of Christianity:

“The willful amnesia about the unparalleled missionary expansion of Christianity among the diverse polyglot cultures of Asia (prior to 1500) has produced distorted mental maps of the Christian world in the first 1,500 years among generations Christians and theology students. Without knowledge of the unique and fascinating elements of Christian presence in Asia in the Islamic age, historical understanding of the life and faith of Christian communities worldwide or the process by which Christianity became a global faith is deeply flawed.” (p. 402)

That phrase about distorted mental maps is striking. Do you realize that the way you think about the church built by the work of the Spirit, on the cornerstone of Christ, to the glory of God may be distorted? Hanicles is right to call us to something better and, in his book, to help us get there!

Third, I will pass on the reading list that Hanicles offers to help set our mental maps right:

  • Philip Jenkins – The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died
  • John England – The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia
  • Dana L. Robert – Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion
  • Ian Gilman & Hans-Joachim Klimkeit – Christians in Asia Before 1500
  • Samuel H. Moffet – History of Christianity in Asia
  • Douglas Jacobsen – The World’s Christians: Who They Are, Where They Are, and How They Got There
  • Dale T. Irvin – History of World Christian Movement: Volume 1
  • John Stewart – Nestorian Missionary Enterprise: The Story of a Church on Fire
  • John Foster – The Church of the T’ang Dynasty

(Hanicles offers the last two items as being “much older publications.”)

Finally, a quick word on how to approach our collective amnesia. It’s all well and good for me to post this reading list…but these are some heavy books, as is the Hanicles book which I’ve quoted. Eddie Arthur’s post suggests Vince Bantu’s A Multitude of All Peoples, which is probably more approachable, but we are severely limiting our progress is books is all we do.

It is worth stopping to think: how are our churches most likely to gain a fuller perspective on Church history? Some of them are going to read, but it will be an even smaller number among those who are in a position to read books like these here. Let me offer a few thoughts on some ways forward:

  • Those who can read, should read more widely. If you were going to pick up some more Church history, rather than reading a(another) book on the Reformation, pick something from this list. If you have committed yourself to going further into Christian history, then to do so well means going beyond the bounds of the traditional Western curriculum.
  • Let us find ways to create more broadly digestible material. Eddie Arthur’s blog post is a good example of this but what else can we do? In what ways are people listening to you? How could you use your voice to help shake off our amnesia in regard to the worldwide work of God? Who will write the children’s books about the Church in Asia before 1500?
  • Sermon illustrations. Pastors who are reading Church history could consciously try to work some of this material in, especially in place of more traditional fare.
  • Create opportunities and curriculum. Before moving to the UK, Christiane and I spent a year creating and sharing a workshop called Too Small A Thing: An Introduction to the Global Church. It was six, forty-five minute sessions aimed at helping Canadian churches to better posture themselves as part of the bigger, broader, and more beautiful Global Church. We knew there were already a stack of good books to help people do this, but we also knew that some people are never going to read those (and that there is nothing wrong with that). What is more, there are advantages available when you learn as a group that are not there to those who sit on their own and read a book. Maybe there is something along these lines that you could do? I’d be happy to chat and share what we did if it would help you on your way (…email me at tyler.horton@sim.org).

A good, and easy, first step for you today? Read Eddie Arthur’s post and then share it with someone else.

Here at the beginning of 2022, we are in need of bolstering our financial support base. If the things we’ve talked about here move you, would you consider joining in this work by supporting us financially? Click through the links below for more information or drop us a line (tyler.horton@sim.org / christiane.fox@sim.org).

We work on behalf of a team that sends and supports us as we serve the Global Church. Click on the Together… tab for more information about how you can partner with us so that the good news of Jesus will be heard where he is least known.

6 thoughts on “Distorted Mental Maps

  1. R Kirk

    Tyler, thanks for this. Some of these I’ve read, some are new. I’m in the midst of revising and prepping a Church History course to be taught twice in Ethiopia (two week intensives), leaving here March 6 (Lord willing), returning April 22. I have already tried to integrate elements of the global history of the church, but some of the titles you shared will add to that. I am doing a couple of other things, or trying to. Showing church history as the history of the work of the Holy Spirit, and also as the history of missions. I did this before in March 2020 — finished in one school just as the Covid lock-down happened in Ethiopia and had to cancel the second one. Blessings, Bob



  2. R Kirk

    Tyler, have you read Vince Bantu’s A Multitude of all Peoples? The author seems to be writing from an Egyptian perspective, and intentionally against a Chalcedonian view. But he is an interesting writer. Bob



    1. Yeah, I did but didn’t quite see it the way you’ve framed it here. I think the book has an ambiguous (maybe ambivalent) relationship to the early creeds. I got it for a review and if you drop me a line I’ll send you what I wrote up.


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