READING DANA ROBERT, CHRISTIAN MISSION
The book has been widely reviewed: for instance here and here. You can also find a lengthy and informative interview with the author. She features prominently in this substantial panel discussion on youtube.
We will be addressing the following questions:
Although short, this is a very important book, which summarizes the author’s many years of research and accumulated expertise. It is rich in ideas and insights. Why do you think she wrote the book? What other scholarly approaches was she arguing against? What debates is she engaging in?
What distinctive positions is she trying to stake out?
How convincing are her arguments?
How does her work revise standard ideas of global Christian expansion?
How might you criticize the book? Is she fair to different churches and denominations? Which does she over- or under-emphasize? What gaps can you see in her treatment?
The Politics of Missions
How is Christian expansion remembered (and often parodied) in literature, film and popular culture?
What are the main accusations commonly presented against European missionaries? How does Robert respond to these?
The Nature of Mission
What were the main forces driving Christian missionary endeavor? Was the nature or purpose of mission debated?
Debates over strategy: which areas should be the primary centers of concern?
Which social groups should be targeted initially? Should evangelicals seek to turn the older social orders upside down?
Why did many churches NOT engage in missions? What does this tell us about how they interpreted the Biblical texts that bear on this issue?
In the first two centuries after the Reformation, it was far from obvious that Protestants of any shade would play a leading role in mission, and they fell far behind Catholics in their passion to convert the world. Why did the great change occur, and which groups were most active?
Robert, like Sanneh, discusses Bible translation and “vernacularization.” How does her approach differ from his?
Comparisons Over Time
Robert draws examples from many different historical eras. What comparisons and contrasts emerge over time, whether we are dealing with (say) the Roman Empire or the British?
In the early stages of mission, why were monks so critical to Christian expansion?
What comparisons can we usefully draw between Patrick and Bernard Mizeki?
My post on The Dark Ages compares missionary strategies in widely separated eras.
I also wrote about a rare manifestation of recorded anti-missionary sentiment in Western Europe.
I have also written some on Christian expansion in marginal and border regions, and on some themes closely related to Robert’s. You might read this as well for comparison. These pieces include my notion of Daniel Syndrome, and one on Faith on the Frontier.
Another discusses Christian expansion into Central Asia.
As I wrote, “Trace the frontiers, and you follow the patterns of religious development.”
The Alliance With Empire
How far was mission linked to empire and imperial expansion? Did mission lead or follow empire? Which was the dog, and which the tail?
Ideas of empire are dynamic rather than static. How do they evolve in the periods under discussion? Is empire a uniform pattern, or how does it vary from place to place? Does imperialism have degrees? How does this affect the fate of missions and Christian expansion?
Simplistic stereotypes to the contrary, European empires were complex societies with many intervening stages between pure imperial overlords and native peasants. What were these stages? Think about the role of merchants and compradors, mixed race communities, marginal races and peoples, Jews and Syrians.... Lines of race and color floated and varied over time. How did missions benefit or suffer from these imperial nuances?
How differently did mission churches behave depending on whether or not those territories were under direct imperial rule?
How could Christian expansion be separated from the growth of White and Western influence?
Was Christianity linked to ideas of Whiteness, for better or worse?
How far did churches act as arms of imperial government?
Robert particularly emphasizes the opening years of the twentieth century as a crucial phase in her story. Why? What key trends does she see in operation?
War and Faith
This is not often noticed, but tell me how WAR drove or reshaped missions? Pause and think about this a bit - it’s important.
Empire and Nationalism
How could Christian expansion be separated from rising anti-Western and anti-imperial movements? How emerging churches broke free of their imperial ties.
How did churches cope with rising nationalism? How far did they themselves contribute to creating such nationalism?
Do empires tend to produce reactions that ultimately doom them? How? Is empire its own gravedigger? Note how Christians create the potential for new nations and new nationalisms.
How did mission activities affect the “sending” churches, and their wider societies?
The reasons for mass conversion: what messages drew followers; which repelled?
Is it possible to understand the attitudes of ordinary people who were at the receiving end of these missionary attentions? How much do we hear about their reasons for accepting or rejecting the new faith? How deep or sincere were conversions?
After conversion, what were the main problems that churches and missions faced in tending their new flocks?
What evidence is there of popular reactions to missions, whether pro or con?
Gender, Family and Sexuality
Robert’s book is very strong on gender themes. What are her main arguments and findings?
Why are women so essential to the mission story? How have they been able to use mission strategies not easily available to men? How have they deployed familiar roles and stereotypes?
How have women been treated in the historiography of mission?
Also – on a separate but related theme - how have women been treated in the historiography of new and emerging churches?
Consequences of Conversion
How did the missions affect the areas they influenced?
How new Christian churches have given voice to hitherto excluded groups, including women and the poor. Is Christianity a message of conservatism, of social radicalism, of liberal reformism, or all at once?
Revolutions within the household.
The impact of literacy on emerging Christian societies; Christianity as a
language of infinite translation.
Christian expansion as a women’s movement: the role of women as activists
Healing in mind, body and society as core themes of global evangelicalism.
For the impact of mission work on the politics of emerging societies, see my comment here.
How missions have inadvertently spawned spiritual upsurges, manifested by prophets and even messiahs.
How different societies have coped with the highly individualistic, mystical and even anarchistic spirit of Christianity.
How Christianity in missionary contexts has constantly reinterpreted and rediscovered its apocalyptic and millenarian message.
The Nature of New and Emerging Churches
I will be arguing that in understanding emerging churches, it is useful to apply the sociological concept of churches and sects, which you can find discussed here. We’ll discuss this at length in class.
Robert quotes Martin Kähler’s line (p.11) that mission is “the mother of theology.” Discuss!
Heroes And Villains
Tell me about key individuals who really grabbed your attention, for better or worse? Who emerges as a hero (which is not necessarily the same thing as being a saint?) Who is the greatest villain?