Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History by Brian Stanley

Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History
by Brian Stanley
Princeton University Press, 2018

Brian Stanley, professor of world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, stresses in his new book Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History that there's more to the subject than simply Europe and America – and that there's more to the standard narrative than simply the decline of the West:

Scholars of world Christianity, in their commendable enthusiasm to redress the Eurocentric bias of so much historical and theological writing, sometimes give the impression that the declining Christianity of Europe and North America is no longer worthy of attention, for that represents the past, whereas the booming Christianity of the Global South represents the future. That is both an overreaction to previous scholarly imbalance and a potential fallacy of overconfident prediction.

“World Christianity means world Christianity,” he writes, “and not simply the Christianity of the southern hemisphere.”

Even so, the book necessarily deals extensively with North America and particularly Europe, since Christianity underwent a series of massive crises in the 20th century, a century that, as Stanley puts it, “turned out to be, not simply one marked by two world wars, but also a period in which the perennial narrative of human beings' apparently ineradicable propensity for inhumanity entered a new and peculiarly ugly phase.” In 1914 the Christian empires of the West went to war with each other – a traumatic enough commencement for the century – and the mid-century rise of anti-theological governmental systems further complicated the relationship between Christianity and its host cultures. And the rise of militant Islam naturally occupies an increasing percentage of the book's pages.

Throughout, Stanley is every bit as observant of trends inside Christianity as he is tracking its relationship to the world around it. He's describing a living organism, one with a keen institutional instinct for mutation and survival, as in the example of how decoupling faith from societal power structures gradually morphed its expression:

Undoubtedly the most striking single contrast between the face of the world church in 1900 and that of the world church in 2000 is the salience and near ubiquity of Pentecostal styles of Christianity by the end of the century – forms of Christian expression that in 1900 were still uncommon and deemed to be at best eccentric and at worst heretical.

Stanley's arguments are based on wide-ranging research, and his prose is clear and largely scrubbed clean of academic temporizing. Readers of Paul Johnson's 2005 A History of Christianity or Diarmaid MacCulloch's magnificent Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years will find this volume a fascinating addition to the ongoing discussion.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is