by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom
InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426, 286 pages, 2011, $25.00.
—Reviewed by Nicholas G. Piotrowski, PhD candidate, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
It is no exaggeration to say that most Christians have a myopic perspective on the universal church (including church history). Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s book, Clouds of Witnesses, will help readers broaden their perspective, and therefore appreciate a little more the vast magnanimity of God’s grace.
Clouds of Witnesses is comprised of seventeen biographical vignettes of prominent nineteenth and twentieth-century church leaders from sub-Saharan Africa, India, Korea, and China. The chapters do not provide thorough reviews of each person’s life (although a helpful bibliography concludes each chapter); instead, they provide just enough information to sketch broadly the contours of who he or she was and what he or she accomplished. Together, however, the cumulative force of presenting these biographies side by side is a colorful and rousing vision of the growth of Christianity over the last 150 years with indigenous leaders at the helm.
The book has many strengths; two particularly deserve mentioning. First, the authors deftly navigate the complicated matrix of denominations, international politics, races, religions, and philosophical trends that shaped the last two centuries. Each person’s biography, therefore, is realistically presented as influenced by, and influencing, such dynamics. The reader senses the palpable history of each person’s life and surroundings—not merely ahistorical musings. While some readers might feel the authors’ concerns trend a bit too far politically, it should be remembered that context is indispensible to good historiography.
Second, Noll and Nystrom avoid both heavy-handed critique on the one hand, and hagiography on the other. They provide trenchant insight into the results of each person’s ministry and his or her lasting legacy (both positive and negative), yet without the overbearing criticism that retrospect often invites. They offer balanced appraisal and non-appraisal of methods and theologies, and bid readers not only to observe and appreciate the past, but also to think deeply about potential directions for the future.
Space prohibits interaction with every chapter. I will exercise my reviewer’s prerogative, therefore, and comment only on the section covering three individuals in India: Pandita Ramabai; V.S. Azariah; Sundar Singh. These chapters exhibit well the way Hinduism lost some of its grip in India, yet also influenced thinking patterns and practices of the bourgeoning Christianity. Were these leaders to some degree syncretistic? Maybe. But as mentioned above, theological adjudication is not the goal of Clouds of Witnesses; rather, observation and appreciation is. It is difficult, therefore, to read in these chapters without coming to tears both for the sufferings of the Hindu people and the great work of God’s grace in Christ among them—theological fineries aside.
If Christians are going to cherish God’s universal grace, then we need to know names like Kato, Ramabai, and Mingdao as well as we know Calvin, Edwards, and Whitefield. This book can help us to that end. Moreover, the book is just a fun read.
Check these titles:
Hastings, Adrian, ed. 2000. A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Jenkins, Philip. 2007. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Noll, Mark A. 2009. The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 491-492. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.