DAVID R. SWARTZ. Facing West: American Evangelicals in an Age of World Christianity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 322. $34.95 (e-book $7.99)
An associate professor of history at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY, David Swartz has previously written Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (2012).
The thesis of his current book is this: after decades of Christian mission and influence going “from the West to the rest,” Christians in the majority world and particularly the Global South are speaking back, “facing West,” to confront brothers and sisters with forcefulness and effectiveness. The vehicle Swartz uses to make his point is to relate nine historical happenings in the Christian world, beginning in the mid-20th century and projecting into the mid-21st century, that illustrate this trend. He observes that “encounters abroad have deeply shaped certain sectors of American evangelicalism” (5). He makes three additional claims: “transnational encounters often have not fit American political and cultural categories” (5); “migration and demographic realignments are intensifying the impact of this global reflex” (6); but also “evangelical cosmopolitanism is not pervasive at present” (7). The nine chapters are divided into three parts and preceded by a gripping introduction.
According to his 12-page narrative introduction to the book, the author’s research into the origins of World Vision, one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world, seemed to provide impetus for this larger project. On the ground in Seoul, Korea, he heard a version of the history that was different from the one that is popularly known in the West. In conversation with Jong-Sam Park, newly retired president of World Vision Korea, Swartz learned that it was a Korean pastor, Kyung-Chik Han, rather than Bob Pierce, who founded World Vision. “[Pierce] was plugging into an existing humanitarian network already constructed by the Koreans. As Bob Pierce’s star began to rise in the west, however, Han’s contributions were trivialized. In America, he was typically known as Pierce’s interpreter” (1-2).
Part 1 is titled, “Christian Americanism,” and introduces the concept that provides a major focus for the book, using as illustrative material a Youth for Christ rally in Soldier Field, Chicago, on Memorial Day 1945 and the previously mentioned founding of World Vision on the heels of the Korean War. The gospel that was taken was a fairly uncritical version of American cultural Christianity spurred on by Cold War fear of “godless communism,” with the assumption that missionaries were the teachers, the imparters of wisdom and truth and help, and the national peoples were the learners, the receivers of those benefits.
In Part 2, “Global Encounters,” westerners, willingly or unwillingly, begin to take on the role of learners in certain situations. Some Americans were learning the importance of indigenizing mission efforts and contextualizing of the message of the gospel. In “Sat Tal 1958,” Swartz highlights the work of E. Stanley Jones, who adopted Indian forms in his mission endeavor. “Lausanne 1974” recounts the Latin American theologians’ speaking back to the carefully scripted North American agenda at that global assembly. “Occidental Mindoro 1983” gives the development of World Vision into a truly international organization, thanks largely to the efforts of a Chinese Christian working in the Philippines. “Almolonga 1999” traces the growth of Pentecostalism worldwide and in the West. And finally, lest we think of global influences as being solely liberalizing, “Mbarara 2007” highlights the African critique of evolving American sexual mores and practices.
Part 3, “Disorientations,” recounts first the continuing development of International Justice Mission, which confronts human trafficking, a very popular cause in North America, where “a neo-colonial discourse of rescue persists.” Despite some successes and an organizational willingness to learn and adapt ministry goals and practices, “[t]he campaign for human rights in Thailand remains incoherent” (237). The final chapter traces the history of Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston, where ministry among immigrants convinced the founders, Doug and Judy Hall, that “non-Western spiritual vitality could renew the West” (269).
Swartz’s book is widely researched and densely packed with information and analysis. Citations and notations, given at the end of each chapter, are numbered not in phrases or sentences that recount ideas that have been used to make his argument, but at the end of each paragraph. And each number carries more than a few references and explanatory sentences. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether a certain statement was a citation or an observation drawn by the author. There is also a helpful index at the end of the book.
Despite the density of the information given, Swartz’s narrative style captured me like fiction. This is not a dry recitation and explanation of events, but an absorbing series of stories that recount a checkered American evangelical past with regard to international respect and mutuality. It also gives a trajectory (possible though as yet unevenly realized) toward a truly global Church working together to extend the kingdom of God.
There were a few grammatical corrections that need to be made. The other criticism I had is very subjective: at times I felt a cynicism coming through in Swartz’s word choices or observations: e.g., he writes of Youth for Christ rallies “presided over by young, cool preachers” (28). But given the way references were cited, it was sometimes difficult to tell if those were his words/attitudes or those of his sources.
I agreed wholeheartedly with much of what Swartz was saying. We Christians are citizens of God’s kingdom, and as such we need to express kingdom—rather than western—values in our words and actions. But given the fact that human culture is absorbed unconsciously rather than learned intentionally, how much can we expect Christians anywhere not to be products of their times and places? We need others who are different from us to help us learn kingdom citizenship. And it’s so much easier to see failures and shortcomings in the Christian lives of people of another time or in another place. Is such second-guessing fair to those well-intentioned forebears? Yet the admonition is apt: go into the world, but go as learners, with humility and grace. The more you learn, the more you know you don’t know. Read this book.