Colonialist legacies, Globalization, and The American Influence on World Christianity

Pair of Globes, 1728 - 1730,

In The New Shape of World Christianity Mark Noll says “Christianity in its American form has indeed become very important for the world. But it has become important, not primarily because of direct influence.”[1] In contrast to Noll, I feel the situation is far too complex for Noll’s theory of a separate American form and “American influence” to stand. The idea that a direct influence and an indirect influence matters, is some cause for debate. From the new forms of colonialism to globalization, American influence in world Christianity is very real.

Form and Influence

There is no single place is his book where Noll directly delineates what the differentiation of American influence and the American form is.

As to the former, Noll describes as a manipulation along with the terms money, military might, educational institutions, and missionaries.[2]

The latter, the American form of evangelism (by which he does not differentiate the movement/ activity enough, a common thread in evangelical thought: see my review of Sunquist’s ecclesiology), he seems to loosely define in a historical explanation starting from its early days as embodied by volunteer organizations.[3] It embraces entrepreneurial leadership, connecting the Gospel with commerce and entertainment, and is eager to enter the public sphere.[4]

What counts as “direct?”

A royal Elephant fight in India
A royal Elephant fight in India, image courtesy LACMA, link in image

Noll implies, by denying direct American influence, that the American form was adopted by indigenous churches and is being used independently of American missionaries.

Certain difficulties in separating Noll’s spheres of form and influence are thereby introduced because he does not provide us with a concise definition. (Again, note my similar feelings on the Sundquist article).

Noll, in fact gives, examples shows his two proposed spheres are intertwined.

America’s Economic Influence is not Monolithic

In his section on the Jesus Film, Noll initially gives the impression that Campus Crusade, who were involved in the distribution of the film. was a volunteer organization that simply exploited the standing economic and technological means available to them (American Form).[5] Then, he continues then to point out that the very film is a byproduct of America’s economic power and overwhelming technological might (American Influence).[6]

This second point seems to overturn the first. Volunteers, who are inherently economical because they can afford to volunteer (I’ve been poor enough to learn that lesson), are not only excess labor. The very ability to exploit an economic or technological means for whatever end desired is simply another faucet of America’s monetary might. How many even in first world countries can afford to use our technology? Our own economy is itself stratified into have and have nots.

It seems naïve to try and differentiate personal freedoms like those enjoyed by evangelicals as not themselves a product of America’s political power. Moreover, it is probably more correct to clarify certain American’s economic influence and certain American forms are spread.

Globalization and the Wealth Gap

I see in Noll’s statement reminders of the basic outline of what Manfred B. Steger, Director of the Globalism Research Center at RMIT University, Australia, calls the “selling tactics of globalization.”[7]

Steiger relates a common argument like Noll’s. “People aren’t in Charge of globalization; markets and technology are.”[8] This statement seems to follow Noll’s idea that no manipulative people/ power are in direct charge of the situation, but tries to claim the forms of modern economics are making the changes “without manipulation.” Again, this raises the direct/ indirect issue.

Steger continues that when this argument is given, it is almost always accompanied by an expression that “Certain human actions may accelerate or retard globalization…”[9]

Per Steger, we can go even further. These types of views ignore not only actual direct actions, but most indirect actions, that have led to integration, deregulation, and asymmetrical power relationships. This occurs to the point that Steger says bluntly, “the claim to a leaderless globalization process does not reflect reality in today’s world.”[10]

In fact, Steger sees this very class of argument as nefarious:

One large segments of the population have accepted the globalist image of a self-directed juggernaut that simply runs its course; it becomes extremely difficult to organize resistance movements. As ordinary people cease to believe in the possibility of choosing alternative social arrangement, globalism’s capacity to construct passive consumer identities gains even greater strength.[11]

Steger is, of course, speaking primarily of secular economic matters but major economic or culture changes affect all aspects of one’s life, religion included.

Ghana a Case Study

To see how this plays out, we can turn to a good example of a nation in which the American form has ascended to cultural dominance, Ghana. Studying observations of the American form and influence in action helps distil a real world opinion

Paul Gifford, Professor of Religious studies at the University of London, relates from his first hand observation and study how this process has played out in Ghana. Gifford first warns that any generalization of the situation in Ghana is just that; nevertheless, he states we can classify the situation before the 1980’s, as one in which Catholicism and mainline Protestant denominations were both the most popular and politically influential.[12]

This makes Ghana a good example. A third world nation where Christianity is not being introduced, but rather one in where the contemporary American Christian forms ran up into indigenized but very systematic and developed Christian forms. The notion of influence from native religion, or by “position as first to arrive” while not flatly deniable is minimal.[13]

Charismatic and Prosperity movements in Ghana

Harbor in Ghana
Harbor in Ghana, pixabay, no known restrictions.

Gifford himself traces the roots of the Charismatic churches that have largely displaced the old order back to the 1970s Prosperity Gospel Charismatic movement of Oral Roberts in America and its gradual introduction into Africa.[14] The new movement was characterized by charismatic leadership claiming to be prophetic, [15] a stress on this world prosperity,[16] underlined by a focus on material success.[17]

Gifford laments the American materialistic influence when he relates that sermons ‘not mentioning Jesus once, but Bill Gates twice’ are commonplace.[18] These new churches are all also highly independent, as the parishioners are seemingly more bound by allegiance to their prophet than any sense of community.[19]

These “prophets” have no reason to unite. And many seem much more content to stuff their own coffers. It has become the norm for popular charismatic preachers to have bodyguards, to seek to move the country’s governmental system towards a more authoritarian state, and to claim titles such as mega-prophet.[20]

Maybe Noll is here partially correct, there seems to be little direct Americian “influences” as the churches are independent and focused on being materially successful. They are resting on their own ability to influence true to the American form.

Gifford sees these processes as key to the whole Charismatic enterprise in Ghana. The “form” of the prosperity gospel is the core message of the emerging churches. [21]  These are not leaderless churches begging for American advice, but rather poses leaders so important that they can, and sometime must, claim to be prophets to be taken seriously.[22]

Does Ghana Exonerate Globalism?

This case study raises some sticky situations. First, Noll’s thesis that America is not manipulating the situation seems to be backed up by the importance of native Ghanaian leadership.

Yet, on a purely philosophical level, the fact that the American form pushed the Ghanaians to become so leader-focused, shows that the American form could itself promote American leadership if the ground situation changed. A rich American Super-Duper-Mega prophet could overturn all the local leaders.

American Influence is still at work

Let us for a moment inspect the aspects of the American form that have caused the Ghanaians to so value prosperity. There are other American forms that could have come forward.

In defense of Noll’s ideas, we should admit that to value their own Ghanaian prosperity as the nation improves Ghana’s economic lot. In that it naturally becomes more like America. Noll would have us say that this shows “parallel development rather than direct influence.”[23]

But is that all that is occurring? The American form, which promotes a focus on wealth as “good” is not neutral. America, considered the wealthiest nation, becomes a highest good by its status of being wealthier than anyone else. We see in American politics a tendency to use this ideal to both scare people that America may lose wealth and therefore “Goodness” or that as long as wealth increases an action is “Good” regardless of who it goes to. There’s a bit of an ideal that “richer Americans” are better people.

For Ghana, accepting the American Form is to admit that they are morally inferior when they confess to being economically inferior. And that in turn exonorates American influence in the economics, politics, etc. of the land.

Such is a bit too tacit to outright dismiss, even if we claim that the doctrine was formed in America by wealthy parties seeking control there, and is more likely an American self-justification being transplanted instead of any nefarious enterprise at propaganda.

Like the growing wealth gap threatens American democracy, and freedom for the sake of America’s economic manipulators, so it does Ghanaians’ and World Christianity’s

Study for Africa Allegory
Study for Africa Allegory, image courtesy LACMA, link back in image

The most troubling aspect of Gifford’s case study, was that for all the Ghanaian mega-prophets talk of prosperity and empowerment, they have actively moved to undercut democracy and economic reforms. Programs that the older Protestant / Catholic churches championed.[24]

Returning to Manfred Steger, he mentioned that the promotion of wealth[25] and democracy[26] are two common justifications given by American expansionist. The reality of American expansion is often that it has curtailed both.

Economically, the monetary system (Which is its own issue) is highly unequal. Much data points such issues are based on more than just irregularities; even a Nobel Prize winning economist was willing to be fired, from an influential position at the World Bank and IMF, to try and make the information public so real policy changes could occur.[27]

The democratic ideal, sold to the American people, has also not panned out. The United States corporate world, since 1989, has increasingly refused to do business with unstable democracies and favored dictatorships.[28] They are secure investments.

My main thought: the American form is its influence

In relationship to Ghana, can we justly claim that an American form is innocently transforming the nation into something that submits to American machinations so freely and as a moral imperative really free of American influence?

Can we keep the blinders on when the promises of Globalization are not being met?

In my judgment to simply claim that an American form alone is responsible is naïve and short sighted; even if no direct American influence is involved, the American church is still morally compromised within America were this type of teaching occurs. We have not addressed any responsibility for this religious forms side effects, and have rather been drawn into societal ethics debates on personal behavior.

Satan laughs as his doctrine spreads. Let us not kid, there is real evil at work here. Destroying lives, communities, and validating actions in the pulpit that should be condemned by the pulpit.

The Lesson of “The Prime Directive”

In the feature films, Star Trek 2 & 3, a weapon is developed that when launched at a dead planet completely morphs it into a lush green world perfect for human habitation. That weapon is the result of the Earth people’s collective scientific, political, cultural, and economic might.

In many ways, what is happening in Ghana is a similar event. The Prosperity Gospel was developed by Americans, in an American economic, political, and cultural ecosystem in capsule form. When the “bomb” was launched at Ghana, the entire world of the Ghanaian people was forever changed.

In the movies, the thing causes the whole planet to implode. And life seems to be matching art.

In fact, in the Star Trek TV serial, the only way the humans can stop from influencing primitive cultures is to have no interaction with them whatsoever. I’m not sure that is quite the right tact. In the case of American missionary efforts, the people ministered to are often not “primitives.” Even tribal cultures are very complex. Yet the difference between their cultures and America economically and military, may have well rendered them “comparatively primitive” as if a spaceship had appeared.

The need is to find a way to culturally interact, yet remove the influence of American thought that rest on the gospel of wealth and the gospel of “Pax Americana.”

Responses to the American effect on World Christianity so far seem incomplete

The worldview Noll presents, that there is separable American Influence and Form has a sense of incompleteness to it. Yet, it strikes in the right direction of a lesson to be learned.

While Noll presents the spread of Christianity today as being affected by an American form, something to affirm. That is completely separate from American influence obscures the fact that it is a form created around justifying such.

In that guise. Noll’s ideas seem to be inadequate to challenge common excuses for economic exploitation. And while sharing the Gospel is lifesaving to those who believe, moral questions arise from using clay jars that contain other substances.

Noll’s contention that the form once accepted by natives is going to be free of American influences seems to ring true. That said the American form looks suspiciously closely aligned with American economic and military interest also appears true.

We need to work to make the distinction of “form” and “influence” actual

Noll’s ideas of “American foreign influence” seem too wrapped up in an outdated image of colonialism. It views colonialism as defined only by the models of European colonies of direct ocupation.

Yes, these colonies were defined by subjugation of natives, the establishment of foreign controlled commissionaires, and the inclusion of the colony within the European nations’ domains. If we accept this defines the paradigm then Noll’s theories are correct.

But post-colonial realities have shown there are still control, subjugation, and other methods of “soft-colonialization” left in place. The success of American economic globalization (corporate colonialism) shows its impact in everything from McDonalds in Beijing to the existence now of monetized economies and bond corporations in almost every nation.

Some shift in the colonial paradigm has occurred, but it has not gone away. In response, we must learn to shift our definition of what colonial influences are.

Let them eat cake: Soft-Power has replaced Hard-power.

Holl. Corps Zandspruit, 1899 - 1901
South African Troops 1899 – 1901, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

We would be short-sighted if we only defined cultural influences or control as long term, occupation, or directly contrived efforts. Boots on the ground are not the only way to effect cultural changes. Trade, idea flow, etc. have always been recognized as other means.

These “earth-shattering” cultural packages, American in source, are released on the world even if the proliferation of them is not necessarily by Americans. China now has many similar efforts in the work, running on the same paradigm that the “Great nation” is to “aid the weaker.” There is as of this moment no mechanisms in place among missionary/ church hierarches to stop proliferation.

Again, Noll’s and other’s contentions that an American cultural “form” and not an overt influence has led to the proliferation of “Americanesque” churches relies too much on a worldview that wants to define cultural influence in terms of Portuguese slavery, Dutch Trade Company governments, covert operations, or similar things.

Yet, what to do about it is still a big question. America has developed a culture that seems to utilize a “one shot kill” method akin to strategies for nuclear wars. It muscles into cultures and totally reshapes everything.

Just maybe, the current global cultural attrition is strategically more akin to STAR 1 negotiations or Germ warfare. Based on decisions in the larger state, a minor war is over in a matter of seconds. No more is culture clash a conventional struggle in which a war rages on for years.

Within such time frames, things become worrying as an overt and continued aggression are not needed. In that case, Noll’s thesis’ correctness or incorrectness is in part immaterial, for it represents a worldview that does not properly weigh the moment of the situation.

Culturally, the current “American form” spreading raises the strategic stakes to atomic-warhead-levels and like strategic warheads, these forms are themselves products of an American culture, enterprise, and belief system from which any separation is artificial.

Need it be so? Forging to redefine World Christianity

I believe not. One thing I have attempted to stress throughout this brief study is that there are “Multiple” American forms/ influences. Even more, these are products of internal American struggles about wealth, it’s place in society, and American attempts to legitimize our power structures.

It is both logically possible and reasonable to forecast that native cultures or even American culture will eventually raise challenges and delegitimize these structures.

Do you see this happening? If so how?

As always, I welcome feedback.


 


 

Bibliography

 

Noll, Mark. The New Shape of Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.

Gifford, Peter. A View of Ghana’s Christianity, in The Changing Face of Christianity, Africa, the west, and the world, ed. Lamin Sanneh and Joel Carpenter. New York: Oxford Press, 2005.

Steger, Manfried. Globalization, A very short introduction. New York: Oxford Press, 2003.

Liu, Henry CK. “Stiglitz pinpoints ‘moral’ core of crisis.” Asia Times, January 26, 2010, Accessed June 6, 2013. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/LA26Dj04.html.

Adeney, Miriam. Kingdom Without Borders: the untold story of Global Christianity. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2009.

Citations

[1] Mark Noll. The New Shape of World Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 11.

[2] Ibid. pp. 12.

[3] Ibid. pp. 13.

[4] Ibid. pp. 14.

[5] Ibid. pp. 70.

[6] Ibid. pp. 73.

[7] Manfred Steger. Globalization, A very short introduction (New York: Oxford Press, 2003), 93-6.

[8] Ibid. pp. 102.

[9]Ibid. pp. 102.

[10]Ibid. pp. 103.

[11] Ibid. pp. 103.

[12]Peter Gifford. A View of Ghana’s Christianity, in The Changing Face of Christianity, Africa, the west, and the world, ed. Lamin Sanneh and Joel Carpenter (New York: Oxford Press, 2005), 83. Though Gifford is my main source, I verified all his information in a second book Kingdom Without Borders by Miriam Adeney.

[13] Ibid. pp. 92.

[14] Ibid. pp. 88.

[15] Ibid. pp. 90.

[16] Ibid. pp. 85.

[17] Ibid. loc. Cit.

[18] Ibid. pp. 87.

[19] Ibid. pp. 93.

[20] Ibid. loc. Cit.

[21] Ibid. pp. 88.

[22] Ibid. pp. 85.

[23] Noll. New Shape of Word Christianity, pp. 110.

[24]Gifford. A View of Ghana’s Christianity, pp.  93.

[25] Steger, Globalization, pp. 103.

[26] Ibid. pp. 110.

[27] Henry CK Liu. “Stiglitz pinpoints ‘moral’ core of crisis,” Asia Times, Jan 26, 2010, accessed June 6, 2013. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/LA26Dj04.html.

[28] Steger. Globalization, pp. 111-2.

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.


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