[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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?