Christianity has significantly changed over the past 100 years. Demographically speaking, the shift in Christianity from a Western religion to a global religion may be the most significant change in church history since the Edict of Milan, which granted Christians legal rights in the Roman Empire. Countries such as South Korea, Brazil, and Nigeria each send more foreign missionaries abroad than any European country. The shift away from the Mediterranean and North Atlantic should influence the way one understands the body of Christ, as well as change the faces of biographies that are told in churches. Added to the legacy of Martin Luther, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and Jonathan Edwards should be Byang Kato, V. S. Azariah, and Sun Chu Kil.
Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom have set out to begin this biographical shift with the book Clouds of Witnesses. They open the book with their purpose: “to introduce readers in the Western world to noteworthy Christian believers from the recent history of the non-Western world.” With Hebrews 12:1–2 as their touchstone, the authors present these men and women to encourage readers to “run the race” with the endurance that Abraham, Sarah, and Moses ran, even though the path was littered with struggles. In order to accomplish this task, the authors split the book into several sections according to the different regions represented: Southern Africa, West Africa, East Africa, India, Korea, and China. From each of these regions, they have chapters on influential figures who have profoundly shaped what Christianity looks like from a native point of view in these specific regions. Noll and Nystrom present the full lives of non-Western Christians by giving their backgrounds, upbringing, and discipleship methods.
Instead of just telling the story of these men and women, however, the authors end each chapter with a brief assessment of that person’s impact on the church. Not every assessment is positive, either. Noll and Nystrom include controversial figures in this biography, and in regions known for charismatic phenomena, the authors include the eye-witness accounts and let the reader wrestle with the reports. Their goal is to introduce different expressions of Christianity across the globe via biography, not to present the most evangelical ones. They succeed in their goal by giving enough detail to begin investigation of influential non-Western figures as well as by presenting events that challenge one’s conception of the faith.
There are several strengths to this book. First, the authors pointedly introduce each subject’s context. Without much knowledge of the historical situations of each region, one can still understand the challenges surrounding the Christian faith that each subject fought to overcome. Secondly, the biography format draws one into the story of each subject to sympathize with them in the plights that they face. From this comes the power of a biography. The hardships, failures, and triumphs each figure faces present the reader with living examples of complex events and choices affecting generations of believers following them. Men such as Yao Tsung-Wu, who willinging yoked himself to the Communist regime in China, prompt startling questions about compromise and schism in the church. Finally, each chapter ends with a list of sources for further investigation of the person just presented. This allows the authors to avoid producing a volume for each person discussed.
While this work stays in line with its overall purpose, one aspect is missing. Noll and Nystrom explain that their omission of Latin American figures stems from the visible “Catholic-Protestant conflict” present in the lives of men and women in those regions. This has been done despite the global impact that Brazil has had on foreign missions. Despite their honest and well-intentioned reason, one reads this book and desires to hear from this region of the world.
To summarize, this book is invaluable for Western Christians to become acquainted with the non-Western church. As the Western church has had its moments of peril and confusion as well as triumph and encouragement, so Clouds of Witnesses presents the non-Western church. When lack of sources has prevented full investigation, Noll and Nystrom adroitly present what can be discerned. Powerful stories of persecution and suffering by men and women of faith encourage readers to persevere in the face of adversity for the sake of the glory of God.