Book review: Christian Tradition in Global Perspective

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Roger Schroeder, Christian Tradition in Global Perspective (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2021)

reviewed by Cathy Ross, Church Mission Society

This is vintage Roger Schroeder and you will not be disappointed. Obviously in 300 pages he cannot cover the whole of the Christian tradition and choices have to be made. He discusses this in his Introduction and situates the book within the field of “new church history”. It attempts to have a polycentric perspective and to focus more on Majority World stories and movements, which have not often featured in the more traditional accounts. He includes the lived experience of Christian communities as well as official councils and tries to place these within the wider historical and political context. There are eight chapters that divide history up in a recognisable way. What gives this book a particular flavour is its framework of focusing on six primary threads of Christian tradition: Scripture; liturgy, sacraments, and art; ministry and organisation; spiritual, religious, and social movements; theological developments; and mission, cultures, and religions. This structure emerged from a course he had taught with Dr Amanda Quantz at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, so in a sense the book has been tried and tested.

The book does what is says it will do. I found the framework a helpful and, for me, a new way to navigate the thousands of years of Christian tradition. Using the same structure for each chapter does inevitably involve some limitations but it also offers a familiarity and an ability to compare and contrast across the ages. There were familiar stories as well as stories I did not know, and so it has certainly expanded my knowledge and appreciation of world Christianity. Did you know that Patriarch Timothy I consecrated a bishop for the Tibetans in the eighth century and that “he assisted a growing number of churches, monasteries and episcopal sees across what are now the nations of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikstan.” (pp.73–4)? Two hundred years later there were 200,000 members of the Kerait Turks ready to be baptised in Northern Mongolia; the gospel having been brought to them by Christian merchants. Stories like this are found throughout and leave us to ponder what might have been, or indeed what the role of “Christian merchants” might be today.

I particularly appreciated the mission, cultures and religions thread at the end of each section. This thread integrated many of the insights of the chapter in ways that were appropriate for the context of the time but also offered challenges and suggestions for us in our contemporary context. The story of Dominic in an all-night conversation with a Cathar, and Raymond Llull’s mission to Muslims offer us insights into the power of listening and the worth of good conversation. Llull even convinced the King of Aragon to assist in founding a school for training missionaries in the thirteenth century.

Schroeder has also made an effort to tell some less well-known stories and to reframe others. He explains that Catherine of Siena expressed Aquinas’ ideas on redemption in a more experiential way and was one of four women to be named a doctor of the church. He names two Native American Christian women as people important for First Nations Christianity in the seventeenth century. Sadly, he does not tell us more about them. Maybe no more is known about them, but it is good to read the names of these women, as women were so often written out of or ignored in mission history.

The final chapter on the post-Christendom West and non-Western Christianity introduces us to several major reversals in the twentieth century, notably the growth of the church in the Majority World. He quotes Sunquist, who believes that the single most important transformation in the twentieth century was the “rise of the ‘fourth-stream’ churches: those that are independent and rise up, or suddenly spring up, in local context.” (p.274). These are churches that emerge through the inspiration of the Spirit and can be found on every continent. He explores the tremendous growth of the churches of all denominations in the Majority World, the involvement of women in mission and changing attitudes towards culture in this century.

While the coverage is inevitably brief, I found this an informative and helpful overview and appreciated the tracking using the threads of Christian tradition. Liturgy, Sacraments and Art was the briefest thread in each section – I would have liked to read more on art especially, but I was pleased that this was acknowledged and tracked. I would recommend this book for those who want a broader and more global perspective on Christian tradition.

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