Looking Eastward: The Middle East in the Field of World Christianity

Elizabeth Marteijn is a PhD student at the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh. Her research brings together the methods of theology and ethnography in the study of Palestinian Christianity. Her post here continues our series discussing the conference titled ‘Currents, Perspectives, and Methodologies in World Christianity’ at Princeton Theological Seminary held 18–20 January 2018. Our series began with an essay by Jason Bruner on 30 January and continued with a post from Elizabeth on 13 February.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the field of World Christianity, scholars regularly speak about the ‘global South’ and the ‘global North’. But what about the East? By asking this question, I would like to elaborate on the recent post by Jason Bruner, where he excellently reflected on the thought-provoking World Christianity conference held at Princeton Theological Seminary from 18–20 January. Bruner rightfully highlighted remarks being made about territoriality in the field, that areas like the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and denominations like Orthodoxy and Eastern Christianity have a marginal position.

As a scholar working on Christianity in the Middle East, I noticed that none of the conference papers focused on Christianity in this region of the world. The Princeton conference is no exception in this regard. Examining some key-publications in the field, one would draw a similar conclusion. There are some good examples where Christianity in the Middle East gets considerable attention, like Charles Farhadian’s book, which contains a short and clear chapter written by Heather Sharkey that proceeds from early and medieval history, to the modern period, and then to the future of Christianity in the Middle East.1 Douglas Jacobsen also included an elaborate chapter on Christianity in the Middle East, where he describes a wide range of aspects of different forms of Christianity in the Arab world.2 Sebastian and Kirsteen Kim, on the contrary, do not include a section on the Middle East in their introductory book on World Christianity – the reader does not get more than a reference to the Coptic Church in Egypt shortly in their chapter on Africa, and some words on a few other Arab countries in their chapter on Asia.3 The authors of the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World Christianity (2016) focus mainly on Egypt and the Ottoman period, which is still a relatively incomplete picture of Christianity in the Middle East.4

It should be noted that other forms of Christianity deal with the same problem of marginality. In his blogpost, Bruner payed attention to the presentation by Raimundo Barreto, who explained that Latin America is difficult to place within the field of World Christianity. Latin America is seen as part of the West, but as inferior, according to Barreto. Michel Andraos, himself a scholar on Christianity in the Middle East, mentioned that the same applies for indigenous groups that live in the United States and Europe. They are often being left out of the discussion as well. The term ‘World Christianity’ is in fact ambiguous, concluded Martha Frederiks. The field has an African and Protestant emphasis in its genesis, which still resonates today. Which ‘world’ of World Christianity are we talking about if the territorial attention is divided disproportionately?

This marginal position of Christianity in the Middle East is due to the fact that Christianity in the Middle East is dwindling, in contrast to Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. This story does not fit in the general assumption underlying the field that Christianity in the Southern hemisphere is rapidly growing. Hence, the Middle East has a paradoxical place in the field of World Christianity: the Middle East is an understudied area, but on the other hand the Middle East has been described by scholars like Philip Jenkins as the cradle of Christianity and thus one of the oldest forms of Christianity.5 This dominant historical perspective on the Middle East, however, undermines attention to the current developments. In other fields, Arab Christianity has sometimes been studied only through the political lens, downplaying its diversity. Another danger is to study this group ‘as Christians’ only, through the religious lens, undervaluing other complexities like nationalism, ethnicity and identity. It is problematic to describe Arab Christianity in these certain narratives, or put it in boxes, like ‘a threatened form of Christianity’, ‘a Christian neighbour to the Muslims’, or ‘a minority in need of help (from the West)’.

I would argue that, while this might all be partly true, the agency of Arab Christians should not be underestimated. There are numerous cases of socially engaged Christians in the Middle East, trying to contribute to their often-problematic societies – as well as creative theologies, for example liberation theology and Kairos theology in the context of Palestinian Christianity. I would like to call for more attention to contemporary developments in Christianity in the Middle East. This area of the world is currently in turmoil and much is happening there, which needs to be analysed in a scholarly fashion. There are some blind spots in the study of Christianity in the Middle East, like gender, youth and the transnational dimensions. In addition, I see much potential in writing about Middle East Christians as part of the World Christian body. These current developments in the Middle East lend themselves perfectly for the field of World Christianity, with its focus on (post-) colonialism, interreligious encounter, and connectivity, as well as new emerging trends like migration and diaspora. So, considering the future of World Christianity scholarship, I would like to see more World Christianity scholars looking Eastward and producing in-depth reflection on Christianity in the Middle East.

  1. Heather Sharkey (2011) “Middle Eastern and North African Christianity. Persisting in the Lands of Islam,” in: Charles E. Farhadian, Introducing World Christianity. (Malden/Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell), pp. 7–20. 
  2. Douglas Jacobsen (2011) The World’s Christians. Who they are, Where they are, and How they got there. (Chichester/Malden: Wiley-Blackwell). 
  3. Sebastian C. H. Kim & Kirsteen Kim (2016) Christianity as a World Religion. Second Edition. (London/New York: Continuum). 
  4. Lamin Sanneh & Michael J. McClymond (eds.) (2016) The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World Christianity. (Malden/Oxford: Wiley Blackwell). 
  5. Philip Jenkins (2008) The Lost History of Christianity. The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died. (Oxford: Lion Hudson plc). 

2 thoughts on “Looking Eastward: The Middle East in the Field of World Christianity

  1. Pingback: Latin American Christianity in the US: A Window Into the Study of Migrant Christianity and its Theological Benefits | Centre for the Study of World Christianity

  2. Pingback: Questioning a Paradigm: World Christianity | Centre for the Study of World Christianity

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