The Church Planter’s Library (4): Global and Cultural Context

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[Editor's Note: This summer we are posting some old but good pieces from BtT. This post originally appeared on July 13, 2009.]

A good missiologist (whether North American or International) is first and foremost a theologian, but also a student of other disciplines such as world religions, cultural anthropology, history, current affairs, and anything else he can get his hands on in order to understand his context. By studying world religions, the missiologist learns to understand the core beliefs and religious practices of those to whom he will minister. From cultural anthropology, he learns to pay careful attention to the people group he is working with. He seeks to understand their beliefs, feelings, and values, as well as their patterns of behavior and material culture. From history and current affairs, he gains an understanding of the international and regional context within which he ministers.

With this in mind, this post will provide (1) a few selected introductory texts treating world religions, cultural anthropology, and contextualization, (2) a few significant books to help understand the global context, and (3) a list of select history and current affairs books for most major geographic regions of the world, including the United States.

Religious and Cultural Context

Two of the best introductions to world religions are Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths and James Lewis and William Travis, Religious Traditions of the World. Each of these books includes brief introductory sketches of the major world religious traditions.

For those interested in some basic reading about contextualization, I recommend David Hesselgrave and Edwin Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models as well as David Clark’s “Theology in Cultural Context” (Chapter Three of his To Know and Love God). For a beginner’s treatment in intercultural studies, Paul Hiebert’s Anthropological Insights for Missionaries is as good as any.

Global Studies

Here are three significant books dealing with major issues in global studies. I do not recommend them because I agree with everything they say, but because they are particularly helpful at raising significant questions and attempting to answer those same questions.

1. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argues that the 21st century will see increasingly deep-seated conflict between the world’s civilizations and the West will increasingly be at a disadvantage. The civilizational clashes of the 21st century will be mammoth; at the center of these clashes are religion and culture.

2. Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat 3.0. Friedman argues that we live in an almost-flat world. Since the turn of the century, a series of political, economic and technological factors have converged to produce a tidal wave of change in global culture, which will only fully begin to be seen in the next few years.

3. Fareed Zakariah. The Post-American World. Of the commentary on America’s decline, there seems to be no end. The Post-American World is Fareed Zakariah’s contribution to the subject. He chimes in with a more cheery voice than most, focusing more on the “rise of the rest” than the “decline of the West” and arguing that America’s future need not be so gloomy as some predict.

4. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity are excellent treatises on global Christianity.

North Africa & The Middle East

1. Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam. Bernard Lewis is the reigning king of Middle Eastern studies. In this slim little volume, he provides the reader with a concise, level-headed, and very reasonable overview of the crisis within Islam. He gives a brief history of the rise and development of Islam, the Crusades, and of the conflict between Islam, Christianity, and modern western culture.

2. Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History. In this book, Lewis describes the Arabs and their place in the course of human history. He focuses on their identity, achievements, and relations with the non-Arab world.

3. Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival. Nasr provides an excellent exposition of the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam, analyzing its history as well as its contemporary socio-cultural and political manifestations across the Muslim world.

4. For books on Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, see the Central Asia section below.

Central Asia

1. Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game. Hopkirk’s book is the single best history of Central Asia. It is 524 pages long, however, and one must be committed in order to make it through the book.

2. Robert Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary. Journalist Robert Kaplan provides a fascinating and depressing account of his travels in Central Asia (as well as parts of Europe and the Middle East), weaving together history, current affairs, and personal narratives.

3. Central Asian countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are the beneficiaries of an avalanche of new novels, travelogues, and histories. Here are a few that I recommend. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd is a lively interpretation of Iran. Ghost Wars by Steve Coll is a lively but lengthy history of Afghanistan in the late 20th century. The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are masterful novels depicting life in Pakistan. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is a novel about a young Pakistani man living in the United States, wrestling with 9/11 and its aftermath.

South Asia

1. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight. Collins and Lapierre provide a fast-paced and intimate account of India’s 1947 break from British rule and her subsequent partitioning into the two autonomous nations of India and Pakistan. The authors focus on India’s last British viceroy Lord Mountbatten, India’s spiritual leader Ghandi, Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Hindu statesman Jawaharlal Nehru.

2. Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods. Journalist Edward Luce provides an accurate, narrative structured, and humorous account of the rise of modern India.

East Asia

1. Philip Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow. Pan gives us the “no holds barred” narrative of recent Chinese history, and in particular China’s attempt to balance its version of capitalism with its unique brand of authoritarianism. He does so by focusing on 11 profiles of China’s dissidents: a young entrepreneur’s open defiance of the police by attending the funeral of Chinese dissident Zhao Ziyang, a doctor arrested for blowing the whistle on the government’s handling of the SARS epidemic, a filmmaker’s documentary about a Mao-era dissidents who wrote a prison manifesto in her own blood, and others.

2. John Pomfret, Chinese Lessons. This book is a lively, witty, and intimate portrait of five Chinese nationals who the author met in 1981 during Deng Xiaoping’s cautious reopening of China to the West and China’s rise as a police state flirting with capitalism. The author, John Pomfret, was an American exchange student at Nanjing University in the 1980s, and afterwards served two stints as a journalist in China. The author has a wickedly keen sense of humor.

Sub-Saharan Africa

1. Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence is a very long, but eminently readable account of the recent history of Africa. Meredith is unsurpassed in the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the continent.

2. David Lamb, The Africans. Though slightly outdated (published in 1990), this travelogue by David Lamb is still relevant as it probes the tumultuous decades of mid-to-late 20th century Africa. Lamb’s historical footwork is interwoven with interviews and narratives gleaned from his years as a reporter on the continent.

3. Also helpful are the many travelogues and current affairs texts that deal with life in particular African contexts. One of the most significant is Martin Meredith, Mugabe. Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe. This book, not for the faint of heart, is an account of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence, the (culturally Christian) Mugabe’s rise to power, and his metamorphosis from responsible revolutionary into brutal dictator willing to slaughter his own people, including friends and associates. This book allows Westerners a peek into the life of millions of Africans who live under dictatorship.

Pacific Rim

1. Mary Somers Heidhues, Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Heidhues’ book is aptly named. It is a concise history of Southeast Asia. It is not a particularly exciting read, but it is helpful as an accurate and relatively easy to read account of Southeast Asian history.

2. I am unaware of any good current affairs texts or travelogues for Southeast Asia / Pacific Rim. I invite our readership to provide suggestions in the comment box.


1. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence. Barzun’s provides an interpretive history of the past 500 years of Western Cultural Life. It is a masterfully encyclopedic, provocative, witty, and accessible history, although it is a bit long (877 pp.).

2. Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent. Jenkins provides a fairly balanced assessment of Europe’s religious condition, focusing on Islam and Christianity.

3. Central and Eastern Europe differ quite a bit from Western Europe. One of my favorite books related to the former Soviet Union is Owen Matthews, Stalin’s Children, a historical autobiography taking the reader back through three generations of life in the USSR.

The Americas

*Note: I am unable to provide good recommendations for North and South America, with the exception of the USA (below). I invite our readership to provide suggestions in the comment box.

The United States of America

1. Norman Cantor, The American Century. Cantor provides a readable and provocative overview of European and American influence on 20th century global culture. This book could just as easily fit under the “Europe” or “Global Studies” sections above.

2. Robert Remini, A Short History of the United States. Here is the best one-stop history of the United States of America.

3. Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up and I Am Charlotte Simmons. Tom Wolfe is a gimlet-eyed observer of the American cultural scene. Of his many books, I recommend these two. Hooking Up is a witty and perceptive collection of essays published in 2000, exposing “the lurid carnival actually taking place in the mightiest country on earth in the year 2000.” I Am Charlotte Simmons is the 2004 novel that follows up the essays.

What new books (since 2009) can you add to the list? 

The Gospel in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean

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In recent days sociologist Robert Woodberry has made waves when he reported his findings about what produces positive change in developing countries. He compared majority world nations that are making progress toward human flourishing with those whose development has been stymied. The markers he used to measure progress are categories such as health care, education, democratic government, religious freedom, economic opportunity, and respect for women. Woodberry found that all of the progressing nations shared one characteristic in common, and that this same characteristic was absent from each of the stagnant nations. The one common trait was the previous presence of evangelical missionaries. A Christianity Today article sums up Woodberry’s findings thusly:

“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”

The article concludes that if you want a robust democracy today then “the solution is simple—if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”36056

I think I’ve witnessed an example of Woodberry’s thesis. I have just returned from spending eight days in attendance at the Palau Evangelical Church’s 85th anniversary Gospel Day Celebration, where I had the privilege of speaking five times. Where is Palau you may ask? When I received the invitation I had to look it up on Google maps too. Palau is located in the South Pacific Ocean, not far from Guam.palau3

Evangelical missionaries arrived at the tiny Micronesian island 85 years ago, along with fellow believers from a nearby island. Sent by Liebenzell Mission, these German evangelical Lutherans faithfully preached the Gospel despite hardship, death, and persecution from the Japanese occupiers. They established indigenous churches that continue to thrive today.

I had the privilege of meeting with leaders of the Palau Evangelical Church and the Palauan government. They were quick to tell about the impact of the Gospel on their culture. The missionaries established schools and health clinics. They taught the dignity of women and the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. The tiny nation of Palau is flourishing as a result.

The meeting at Palau demonstrated that the Gospel truly transcends barriers. The eight-day celebration was remarkable for its diverse attendees. Delegations representing churches from all over the south Pacific were there: Taiwan, Saipan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, along with believers from other islands throughout Micronesia—Guam, Chuuk, and Yap. It was a marvelous display of Gospel unity. IMG_0759

The conference reminded me that the Kingdom of God continues to advance. Speaker after speaker challenged the listeners to embrace the Great Commission; to have a heart for the nations; to make the name of Jesus known in every part of the world. The believers in Palau and throughout the region realize that they are part of the Kingdom of God, and they are embracing their role in it. Please pray for our brethren in Micronesia, the South Pacific, and throughout Southeast Asia. God is at work on the other side of the world.

This post can also be found at

Three Misconceptions Westerners Have About Muslims

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When the average Westerner hears “Muslim,” a number of images come to mind—mostly negative. Some of the conflict between Christianity and Islam rests on real differences. But a lot is based on misconceptions. Here are some of the most common misconceptions that Westerners have about Muslims:

Misconception 1: All Muslims are terrorists.

Much has been written about how Islam was established “by the sword,” or how Muslims engaging in terrorist activity are simply obeying what the Qur’an tells them to do. It is certainly easy to find Muslims using the Qur’an to justify violence, and there is no denying that Muhammad was himself a warrior.  Even when you give the Qur’an the most gracious benefit of the doubt, asking “What would Muhammad do?” will lead to a very different place than “What would Jesus do?”

That said, most of the Muslims you encounter—either in Western or in Islamic countries—are not violent people. They are kind, peaceable people and they are often embarrassed by the actions of Muslims throughout the world (as we are of some Americans, other Christians, and even ourselves at some point!). While there is a good chance they see world politics very differently from the average Westerner, you will most likely find them warm, hospitable, and peace-loving.

This is not to say that most Muslims don’t believe Islam will one day rule the world. I simply mean that there’s no reason to think your Muslim friend is plotting your assassination. Arguing that violence is an inextricable part of Islamic doctrine may be a good debate to have in certain settings, but it will get you nowhere in most of the relationships you form with “normal” Muslims. Many are wonderful people who will astound you with their charity.

Misconception 2: Muslim women all feel oppressed and unhappy.

Westerners often think of the Islamic woman as severely oppressed. They often have a mental picture of a hunched over woman walking six feet behind her husband, staring dutifully downward… can barely read or write, longing to get out from under the oppressive rule of Islam and their dictatorial husbands.

This is often very far from the truth. Here are three things to keep in mind about the women of Islam:

A.    Many Muslim men and women are happily married. No Muslim man I know personally has more than one wife—and most didn’t have any desire to. The married couples I met when I lived in a Muslim country certainly didn’t do “romance” as Westerners are accustomed to, but neither were the women the demeaned sex-slaves many often assume.

There were, of course, some exceptions. I had friends whose wives were rarely allowed out of the back of the house, must less out into the community. And there are certain cultures in which oppression seems more the norm than the exception. My friends who have lived and worked in Afghanistan, for instance, assure me that they have yet to hear a story of female oppression there that exaggerates the tragic situation. But in many places, Muslim women do not see themselves as oppressed.

B.   Women are often the most ardent defenders of Islam. Ironic but true: despite Islam’s history of oppression, women will often be Islam’s most ardent supporters. Many Islamic women, especially in the Western world, call for reform in how women are treated in Islamic culture, but rarely for an end to Islam itself.

C. It’s hard to argue, however, that the Qur’an and Hadith don’t speak disparagingly of women. The Hadith says that 80 percent of the people in hell are women. In explaining why the witness of a woman is equal to only half of a man’s in court, it says, “Because of the deficiency in their brains.” The Qur’an says that Muslim wives “are like a field to be plowed,” which has often been used to legitimize patriarchy and male dominance in Islamic society. And none of this takes into account localized practices and applications of these principles, which often includes female circumcision or extreme double standards for pursuing divorce or punishing immorality. I know some Islamic scholars will say that I (and many other Muslims) will say that I am reading these texts wrongly, and we should be charitable to them and allow them to interpret their own holy books. However, the majority interpretations of these texts throughout the history of Islam has not produced good situations for most Islamic women. The fact remains that much of the worst oppression of women happens in Muslim countries. Islam lacks the robust Judeo-Christian teaching on male and female as alike and equal, made in the image of God. Many Islamic women do feel impressed, and showing Muslim women their dignity in Christ has, in many places, proven to be an immensely effective evangelism strategy.

Misconception 3: Muslims worship a different God than Christians do.

I know this one might be a little controversial, so hear me out. Muslims claim to worship the God of Adam, Abraham, and Moses. Many missionaries find it therefore helpful to use the Arabic term for God, “Allah” (meaning literally, “the Deity”), to refer to God, and to explain that the God Muslims believe in, the God of the Prophets, was the God also present in bodily form in Jesus Christ and the One worshipped by Christians for the past two millennia. This is not the same as saying that Muslims are really “proto-Christians” or that becoming a Muslim is like a “first step to becoming a Christian” or that Christians are “completed Muslims” or anything like that–simply that we are both referring to the only, One deity when we say “God.” (And, we are certainly not saying that Muslims have an alternate way of getting to heaven outside of faith in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.)

You might ask, “But isn’t the Islamic God so different from the Christian God that they cannot properly be called by the same name? Aren’t we worshipping two different gods?” Does believing wrong things about God mean someone is worshipping a different God? Many of the Jews of the Apostles’ day outright rejected the concept of the Trinity. Did the Apostles therefer claim that these Jews were worshipping a different God? No. They told them that they were seeking the one, true God wrongly, and that they had very wrong ideas about him. Of course, we can think of other situations where such a conflation of terms would be unhelpful. For example, we couldn’t say that Zeus is another name for God and that the Greeks simply had a few things wrong about him, like his pesky persistence in wielding that trident. The Judeo-Christian conception of God and the Greek conception of God are so different that use of those terms interchangeably would be detrimental. Muslims take as their starting point, however, the God of creation revealed to Abraham. For this reason, many missionaries find it better to claim that Muslims worship the one God wrongly, with some very distorted ideas about him, than to claim they worship a fundamentally different God.

On the other hand, I know many Christians who find the use of Allah more confusing than helpful when talking to a Muslim. It’s probably best to let our audience determine whether calling God “Allah” (lit. the deity) is helpful. But in general, I have found that it is most helpful to say that while Muhammad was right in pointing his polytheistic culture toward the one, true God, much of his preaching was incorrect. This seems to be a good starting point from which to begin discussing the gospel with a Muslim.


This is a modified excerpt from my book, Breaking the Islam Code. For more on this issue, see here for “Muslim Misconceptions About Christians.”