The Many Surprises of 20th-Century Christianity

Brian Stanley’s global history makes connections and draws lessons that others are apt to miss.

A reader might well approach Brian Stanley’s Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History with a mix of intrigue and skepticism. How on earth, we might ask, can even the most skilled writer incorporate every major theme and movement, every key thinker and theological debate, in this action-packed era? How many thousands of pages would such a vaultingly ambitious project demand? How could such a book offer a proper and equitable balance between the worlds of Old and New Christendom? How dare any author even attempt such a thing?

In fact, Stanley’s book is a triumph, above all for its highly innovative structure. Indeed, that structure alone is exceptionally valuable both to readers and as a model for educators seeking to frame the ever-expanding Christian story worldwide. Of course (we are relieved to learn) Stanley is not offering any kind of exhaustive and exhausting encyclopedia of Faith, the Universe and Everything. Rather, he selects 15 critical themes in Christian history and explores how many different kinds of Christians have responded to social, cultural, and political issues. In each case, he illustrates his theme substantially with two geographical case studies, with an obvious emphasis on regions he knows particularly well. Even if the final product is not truly comprehensive, it certainly offers a very wide basis for future thought and reading.

Surprising Examples

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of trends in modern Christianity will have opinions about what Stanley’s 15 key themes should be. We might disagree with the exact contents of his list, but few would question the reasonableness of including, for instance, “uneasy marriages between Christianity and nationalism”; …

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