Before Christians in 17th-century Japan were put to death, they were forced to trample metal images of the Virgin Mary. Surviving artifacts still show the toe scrapings, horrifying but potent symbols of the converts' devotion.
If the Son of God returned today, would he encounter faith on earth?
In his most recent book, noted historian of religion and ordained Lutheran minister Martin Marty answers with a resounding "yes." In a concise 236 pages, The Christian World: A Global History takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the history of Christianity, beginning with Jesus' birth in Bethlehem; spanning outward to Syria, North Africa, Europe, and the United States; and culminating in the current hotbeds of the faith: Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The book's premise is that Christians throughout time and across boundaries were drawn to the irrepressible force of Jesus Christ. And although their religion was spread gently at certain times and by cruel force at others, their single-minded devotion to Jesus set Christians apart. This devotion, Marty writes, remains the primary thread connecting members of today's global Church of 2.2 billion Christians in six continents.
Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and author of more than 50 books on religion, covers the adoption of creeds, church schisms, and colonial expansions, but does so in something akin to a pastor's voice. He acknowledges that the book, written without footnotes, may sacrifice depth for breadth. Yet its casual tone underscores the idea that the lives of Christianity's founders are as important as timelines in understanding the religion's history.
Marty draws on his deep historical knowledge, and the quirky details he inserts paint a lively picture of Christianity's spread. French monk Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was "such a charismatic recruiter for the order that parents, it was said, not wanting to lose their sons to monasteries, hid them when Bernard came calling."
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."
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.