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A lively look at Christianity's past, present, and future

Historian and theologian Martin Marty considers Christianity throughout time and across borders.

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Founders all wrestled with adapting Christianity to local contexts. Sometimes adaptations were swift – Constantine swiped "Sun-Day" from the pagans – but others required a lengthy acculturation process. The Catholic Matteo Ricci, who arrived in Macau in 1582, "dressed like a Buddhist monk and spent 20 years becoming a Mandarin scholar before he even mentioned Jesus."

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Christians everywhere pondered how Jesus and his teachings should be presented, the effort forever linking them to Christians elsewhere, Marty maintains.

Persecution was another experience shared by many Christians (Marty also freely acknowledges that Christians destroyed native cultures while singing God's praises). Martyrdom wasn't limited by time or boundaries. Archbishop Oscar Romero, a priest who embraced El Salvador's poor, was killed (probably by the government) while celebrating mass in 1980. Ugandan Christians (among others) were killed under Idi Amin's reign. Christians in Asia Minor, Europe, Africa, and Asia all suffered the experience.

But persecution also prompted Christians around the world to develop tools to address hardship. From Romero to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Christian adherents saw Jesus as a liberator who challenged injustice, and Marty maintains that such a shared image serves as a springboard on which Christians can present their positions on social issues.

Ecumenical and interfaith coalitions are recommended as a way for Christians to address contemporary ills. But Marty provides little direction as to how Christians today – divided by disparities in socioeconomic status, access to resources, and warfare – can unite to combat problems such as terrorism.

Yet anyone reading Marty's work will be hard-pressed to deny the global nature of Christianity. Rising conversion rates in Africa, Asia, and Latin America prove the "irrepressible force" is still going strong. Will it be possible for Christians to create a common voice? Maybe. Are there role models within the tradition upon which to draw? Absolutely, and Marty provides plenty to choose from.

Sarah More McCann is an intern at the Monitor.

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