Studies in World Christianity, Issue 25.3

With this issue, the journal Studies in World Christianity completes twenty-five years of existence. Launched at the beginning of 1995 to be an ‘international forum for a dialogue of equals’ on the study of ‘theology and the science of religion’, this journal has pioneered and defined the interdisciplinary subfield of World Christianity. Today World Christianity has established itself as an important discourse that examines Christianity as a world religion, with scholars from across the globe. It also recognises the limitations of the world religion paradigm and uses the studies of Christianity in diverse localities and Christianity melded into other religious traditions to critique the way in which world religions are often viewed.

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What is the Study of World Christianity?

Last week I was in Atlanta, Georgia, USA to discuss precisely that question. Invited by Jehu Hanciles and hosted by faculty and students of Emory University, 25 scholars grappled with the slippery entity we call ‘World Christianity’. Is it a field, or a lens or even a discipline? Who studies it and why? How did it emerge? Why is it found mainly in Europe and North America? Has it a Protestant bias? What is the relationship between the study of World Christianity and the Christians across the globe who are studied? How do our studies connect with other academic studies like missiology, area studies, demography and anthropology of Christianity? These questions have been asked many times before but I welcomed the opportunity to ruminate collectively with scholars who had carefully prepared and shared papers beforehand. Individual contributions were influenced by the primary discipline of contributors, the areas of the world with which they were most familiar, and how far their institution, post or programme deployed the term ‘World Christianity.’ 

The team at Emory will distil our papers and conversation for public consumption. In the meantime, I have attempted to articulate my description of the present state of World Christianity. I think that because we deliberately cross boundaries of other disciplines when we study World Christianity, it is similar to other emerging foci of study—Global History, intercultural theology etc. However, perhaps the combination of all the following elements does give World Christianity some distinctiveness beyond a useful ‘hold all’ term:

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John Mbiti (1931–2019)

John Mbiti, a pioneer of both modern African theology and the study of religion in Anglophone Africa has died at the age of 88.

Mbiti was part of the pan-African intellectual movement that influenced nationalist discourse as African countries gained independence from colonial rule.  His books, like African Religion and Philosophy (1969), New Testament Eschatology in an African Background (1971), Introduction of African Religion (1975) and Bible and Theology (1986), became best sellers. Mbiti critiqued the international disregard for African religion and demonstrated the religious literacy of Africans. In his cross-continental surveys and his classifications of proverbs and religious practice, Mbiti identified a praeparatio evangelica of Christianity in the African past, with a universal deity at its centre.  For Mbiti the mingling of Christianity and indigenous religion enriched the lives of African people. He was not without his critics. Okot p’Bitek, his colleague at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda in the 1960s, railed against the making of African spiritual beings into a God with Christian attributes. For Bitek this diminished and destroyed indigenous practices.  In later life, Mbiti continued to work from his home in Switzerland – translating the NT from Greek into his native Kikamba (Kenya). This project allowed him to reflect further on the intrusion of western concepts into biblical translations. His thought continues to have a profound influence on the work of African scholars and church leaders.

Scottish Christianity and the World – Call for Papers

The Scottish Church History Society’s autumn conference will be on the theme of ‘Scottish Christianity and the World’ and will take place in the Edinburgh Theological Seminary on Saturday 2 November 2019. We are delighted to have secured keynote papers from two leading scholars in the field. Boston University’s Professor Dana Robert will speak on “Fulfilment Theory and Friendship: Scottish Missionary Engagement with India, c. 1910-”, while the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Brian Stanley’s paper is entitled “From James Legge to Evangeline Edwards: The Role of Scottish and Other Missionaries in the Formation of Sinology in Britain”.

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