Hoboken, NJ: WILEY Blackwell, 2022
You may be surprised that Donna and I enjoyed reading What Is Christianity aloud to each other for many evenings over a period of a couple of months. We found this 148 page book to contain an amazing amount of information on the Christian faith. The first chapter on “Christian Beginnings” starts with the Jewish roots of Christianity, then goes on to Jesus and the Gospel, and the development of the early centuries of the Church.
The next big section, perhaps the most interesting to me, examines in some depth the four major traditions of Christianity – Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Pentecostalism. In each chapter four aspects of each branch are presented – its spirituality, its understanding of salvation, its history, and its structure.
The subtitles for each of these key chapters are significant for they reveal the major focus of each branch
- Orthodoxy: Preserving Ancient Ways
- Catholicism: The Church
- Protestantism : The Bible and the Individual
- Pentecostalism: The Power of the Spirit
I especially found the author’s chapter on Pentecostalism perceptive and uplifting. Given my missionary background, I also really enjoyed “Becoming Global.” This chapter is about the spread of the Christian faith to basically all the inhabited continents of the world. It was encouraging to read about global growth, as well as the contextualization of the faith to other cultures.
Latin America now has 25% of all the Christians in the world, most of whom are Pentecostal. Sub-Saharan Africa has 24% of Christians, Western Europe 14%, Eastern Europe 13%, North America 11%, East Asia 10%, India and Central Asia 3%, The Middle East and North Africa 1%, and Oceania 1%.
Jacobsen writes, “Christian practices from all the traditions and from all geographic regions are now being juxtaposed in new and more intimate ways as Christian immigrants move from country to country around the globe.”
For the above reason and perhaps others during the last decade or so of my ministry I have met and had good fellowship with Christians who are Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal. As a chaplain I’ve gotten to know people in all four traditions. Though differing in doctrine and practice, many of them do indeed “declare with their mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9.)
The next to the last chapter was also interesting to me. It treats commonalities in the global Christian religion: common worship practices, common Christian doctrines, and common spiritual grammar, as well as challenges to Christianity: Christianity & local religions, Christianity & Islam, Christianity & the religiously unaffiliated, as well as Christianity & the Anthropocene Era.
Now just a word about the author, Douglas Jacobsen, Distinguished Professor of Christian History and Theology Emeritus at Messiah University in Pennsylvania. For the sake of full disclosure Jacobsen, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, is better known as “Jake” to us and “Uncle Jake” to our four children since he is Donna’s younger brother. We see Jake not only as an intellectual, a researcher, a lecturer, and an author of many books, but a personable and caring member of our family.
Jake told Donna and me that he wrote this book primarily for public universities to give students a global view of the Christian faith and some exposure to what Christians think and feel about their faith. He also hopes Christians will read it to be reminded how internally diverse Christianity really is so that they will be more tolerant of one another. When reading this book keep in mind that it is published by WILEY Blackwell, which focuses on academic publishing and instructional materials, not by a Christian publisher like Crossway, Moody, Zondervan, etc. as are most of the books I review.
I personally enjoyed the book because I have friends, as I mentioned above, even relatives, in all four of the major traditions. I was once again impressed with how rich and varied the Christian religion is. We evangelicals should never compromise what we believe, but we should seek to understand what other Christians believe. The book also reminded me that we should not just study the history of the Church in the first century and from the 16th century onwards, as we tend to do, but the Church’s history throughout the centuries.
If you read WHAT IS CHRISTIANITY, you may not agree with everything in it, but you will acknowledge that it is insightful and well written, and you’ll learn a lot from it!