Cathedrals, Christianity, and the Survivability of the Church

Yesterday my wife and daughter and I visited Chartres Cathedral, just outside of Paris. The Cathedral is perhaps the world’s greatest surviving example of medieval Gothic architecture, primarily because it remains much the way it was in the 13th century, including having the original stained glass windows, which are nothing short of stunning![1]

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These amazing works of art (and indeed, the Cathedral itself is a masterpiece), incredibly survived not only the French Revolution but WWII as well, despite all odds. The story of how the Cathedral survived WWII is especially fascinating.

When Allied Forces decided to bomb the cathedral on the suspicion that it might be occupied by German troops, an American colonel by the name of Welborn Griffith challenged the order, and volunteered instead to cross the front lines and investigate to see if Germans were actually holed up in the church. His request was approved, and after making his way to the cathedral, he discovered indeed that there were no Germans. As a result, Chartres Cathedral was saved from total destruction. Unfortunately, Griffith was killed a few days later in the fighting to liberate the town of Chartres.[2]

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Commonly, parallels are drawn between the great churches of Europe and the decline of Christianity there, and the general tendency is to criticize Catholicism for having built enduring buildings but no lasting churches.

Our trip to Chartres though had a different effect on me. Instead, what I saw in this magnificent Cathedral is rather a symbol of the survivability of the Church. God, working through frail and imperfect human agents, like Colonel Griffith, will ensure the survival of His Church. After all, He promised as much when He said the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).

And so as we walked around Chartres, taking in its incredible beauty and history, I found myself reminded that the Church will survive the moral decline of western cultures and the propensity of men for war. It will survive terrorism and it will survive revolutions. And most incredibly, it will even survive the theological differences among its members.

[1] See for example http://www.sacred-destinations.com/france/chartres-cathedral.

[2] Story here: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/266849/colonel-chartres-jay-nordlinger.

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Book Review: Global Evangelicalism

global evangelicalismLewis, Donald M. and Richard V. Pierard, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History, and Culture in Regional Perspective. Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2014. Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland.

Its rare to read an edited volume and find very little to criticize. This, though, is precisely the case with Global Evangelicalism. This text quite simply is an excellent introduction to the varied and complex nature of modern evangelicalism. In fact, I’m somewhat hesitant to label it an introductory work, because most introductory works tend to oversimplify. This work does not. Instead, it underscores the complex issues involved in formulating an evangelical identity, historically, theologically, and culturally. In doing so, it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and offers ample fodder for scholarly and practical reflection on the future of evangelicalism.

Rather than summarize each of the chapters, I shall instead focus my review on what are the important strengths and weaknesses of the work. And I will do this in light of the author’s stated goals of helping both insiders and outsiders better understand the global and diverse nature of evangelicalism.

Perhaps the best part of this work is the broad sweep it offers of the global evangelical movement. The editors have rightly chosen to extend their gaze beyond the shores of the United States and Great Britain, and included essays by some of the leading scholars of evangelicalism from across the globe, including preeminent scholars such as René Padilla and Ogbu Kalu. One might think, though, that such a broad sweep would lack in depth and detail, but that is not the case. Yes, the authors tend to present the usual suspects on evangelical definitions, theology, and history (for example, Bebbington’s quadrilateral), but they also offer some insightful and less well-known critiques, such as Kalu’s observation regarding the way in which evangelical shortcomings in West Africa contributed to the spread of Islam in that area (chapter 5).

I also found Donald M. Lewis’s chapter on “Globalization, Religion, and Evangelicalism” (chapter 3) especially insightful. His discussion of “glocalization” and the closely associated concept of “globalization from below” help show Christianity’s adaptability, its cross-cultural power, and ability to influence society at every level, and to do so not by destroying the receptor culture, but building on them and adorning them, as Lewis points out regarding the Karen people of Burma who value Christianity’s culture preserving ability. Also, Lewis highlights that some of the very things that make evangelicalism difficult to define, such as the lack of a single holy language or precise holy place, make evangelicalism highly adaptable, allowing for constant growth and expansion. In addition, missions leaders will find this chapter enlightening as it underscores the need for both urban evangelistic strategies and social activism, in light of the reality of increasingly “global cities.”

If there is a weakness to this work, it would be that I found myself wanting more, especially in regards to part III, “Issues in Evangelical Encounters With Culture.” The issue of evangelicalism and culture is, in my view, the arena for which the future is most uncertain, and so it would have been nice to have more than the two excellent chapters in this section on ecumenism and gender. For example, given that marriage equality and LGBT issues are among the thorniest issues facing evangelicals not only in the west but also in Africa and other parts of the world as well, an article on this topic would have greatly added to the volume. Also, though several chapters reference evangelicalism’s response to the poor and the need of social concern, an in-depth discussion of the prioritism-holism debate would have helped the unaware reader better understand one of the more divisive issues among evangelicals.

But these are very minor critiques, and without a doubt, the authors could not have addressed everything. Overall, this text makes an excellent resource on the global nature, unity, diversity, history, and potential of evangelicalism. For the uninitiated, it provides insightful scholarly reflection from some of the most knowledgeable scholars on this topic. For those who have studied evangelicalism in some depth already, this text too will prove valuable as it implicitly hints at numerous avenues for further scholarly study. For example, when Padilla warns of the dangers inherent in rapid numerical expansion in Latin America, and of growth apart from a biblical understanding of the kingdom of God and the mission of God, I find myself compelled to consider this statement in the African context and in reference to the often lauded growth of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity there.

In sum, I highly recommend this text to academics, missionaries, and to non-Christians who desire a more accurate and robust understanding of evangelicalism around the world. And, I would hope that many of evangelicalism’s critics would also read this work, as it would surely temper some of the more unbalanced and ahistorical accusations leveled against it.

Disclosure: Thanks to Alisse Wissman at IVP Academic for providing a review copy of this text. However, the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.