A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Trevor James Cartwright
As a budding historian, I did not know what to expect when I opened this book. I have read several works, historical and otherwise, about the Church, from the early Church to the Modern Era. However, Sunquist’s intriguing book begins by challenging many of the assumed traditional categories used in texts I have read. Perhaps most surprisingly, Sunquist’s assessments seem to be correct!
The book’s introduction begins by stating that Western theological categories and assumptions are too small to contain the vastness of the modern global Church. For example, Sunquist demonstrates how history shows that Christianity began to grow exponentially in Africa after colonialism, not during colonialism. Indeed, Christianity has been proliferating worldwide, even while Western Christianity has been stagnant or declining. Sunquist notes that some educational institutions have begun referring to Christianity with the plural form “Christianities” due to the vastness and diversity of expression of the religion worldwide. However, Sunquist contends that three interrelated concepts can unify the myriad of expressions: Time, Cross, and Glory. He dedicates a chapter to each concept, but he begins by providing a history of history in chapter one.
The first chapter clarifies that the historian does not simply lay out objective facts neutrally. Historians, Sunquist implores, ought to tell stories about the past as accurately as possible. However, the historian brings his or her religious and historiographical commitments to the table when writing history. Indeed, as Sunquist notes, historians are artists and scientists. So, it behooves the historian to be aware of these factors.
The second chapter delves into the first component of Sunquist’s conceptual triad, Time. After reviewing the Pagan and Greek assumption of time as cyclical, he contrasts it with the Christian perspective of time. The Christian worldview sees time and creation as central. Time, according to Christian teaching, is going somewhere. There was a definite beginning (Creation) and a redemption of time (the Cross) to provide an ultimate end (Glory).
Chapter three discusses the second component, the Cross. The Cross symbolizes Jesus’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. And this story stands at the center of the Christian faith; everything else revolves around Jesus. Christians interpret everything, including Scripture and history, through a Christological hermeneutic. Moreover, the Cross juxtaposes two critical sides of redemption: Suffering and Glory. Sunquist ends the chapter by providing helpful anecdotes of Christian missionaries who suffered deeply to bring the gospel to other groups. They suffered and often died prematurely, but the gospel took hold and produced a harvest.
In the fourth chapter, Sunquist elucidates the final component, Glory. As stated earlier, Christians believe that history is going somewhere. While Christians can experience “little glories” in the present, the ultimate hope lies in the future Glory to come. Sunquist provides some stories of how the hope of Glory has driven Christian missions in the past.
Finally, chapter five provides nine helpful tips to help Christian historians apply this book’s principles to their historical writing and application. According to Sunquist, a Christian reading of history should spur Christians toward living faithfully in the present as they longingly anticipate the ultimate Glory to come.
Sunquist’s short book makes several notable accomplishments important for today’s increasingly pluralistic world. Indeed, the book’s central aim, to establish a common DNA for the many emerging Christian expressions, is desperately needed. Sunquist’s pioneering book fills a critical void by accurately stating the problem and offering a foundational approach to Christian history. His approach is broad enough to include myriad expressions, but it rightly maintains a robust Christological center as a non-negotiable. Sunquist’s conceptual triad of Time, Cross, and Glory offers a succinct, inclusive structure for the many cultural expressions of Christianity, longstanding and nascent.
The book also provides valuable points of contrast to communicate the core message clearly. For example, Sunquist’s brief but adequate recapitulation of the Pagan and Greek historiographical assumptions concerning the cyclical nature of time effectively showcases the peculiarity of a Christian understanding of time as teleological and even redeemable. Indeed, an amateur historian could read this book and track Sunquist’s rare ability to communicate complexity simply and engagingly. His ability to elucidate contrasting positions, while succinctly including Biblical data and anecdotes, is remarkable.
I found his connection between suffering and Glory intriguing. Sunquist links these two states into his Christologically informed historiographical hermeneutic. While this juxtaposition is evident in Scripture, Sunquist brilliantly demonstrates how this conceptual connection is a unifying factor in accomplishing his book’s central aim: locating the DNA of the global Church. He includes anecdotes from many cultures to show how suffering has undeniably played a role in the growth of the Church. Indeed, to be a Christian is to suffer. Suffering is a vital part of the Church’s identity.
While this book boasts these and other accomplishments, some may take issue with two of the book’s features. First, some may question Sunquist’s extensive use of anecdotes. He includes anecdotes throughout the entire book. While most of the stories are interesting and moving, some who would rather engage with the theoretical aspects of his proposed historiography may prefer more information of that sort. Chapter four especially devotes much space to stories. One could argue that these stories substantiate the historical claims, but the stories could have been reduced in length or referenced in the footnotes. The stories add a compelling emotional aspect, especially for sincere Christian readers. However, some would have preferred that this shorter book dedicated more space to the red-meat historiographical data and theory rather than so many stories.
Second, while chapter two’s scope of inquiry is laudable, it does not mention the Islamic view of time. While there is substantial overlap between the Christian and Islamic conception of time, many may question why this chapter did not include the world’s second-largest religion in its panoply of world religions. The chapter includes various religious expressions, such as Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism. However, it would have made sense to note the Islamic perspective, even briefly, as the religion has nearly two billion adherents. To be sure, the chapter accomplishes its primary goal. The lack of the Islamic perspective does not harm the chapter’s thesis. Nevertheless, mentioning such a massive religion in this otherwise thorough chapter would have been appropriate.
In the end, Sunquist’s book asks crucial questions and offers a compelling approach to dealing with these questions. This succinct book offers a massive and much-needed contribution to Christian historiography. There are some minor issues, but the book accomplishes its mission remarkably well. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in reading or writing Church history. I now display it on my personal bookshelf and look forward to loaning it to my students.
Trevor James Cartwright
Buy the books
THE SHAPE OF CHRISTIAN HISTORY: CONTINUITY AND DIVERSITY IN THE GLOBAL CHURCH, by Scott W. Sunquist