Book Notes ~ May 2016

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

In May, I wrapped up a couple long books left over from April and "read" my first whole book from a Puritan author (besides John Bunyan).  I am still working on figuring out a research topic in Thai church history in order to apply for Ph.D studies, which is reflected in this month's titles.

How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

This was a fascinating read from sociologist of religion Rodney Stark.  In short, he advances the thesis that there were distinctive factors that have contributed to the development and prosperity of Western nations that were not present in other cultures around the world.  The West, for example, developed democracy and modern science because of beliefs in progress and the value of innovation.  As in many of his other books, Stark seeks to overturn popular misconceptions and self-loathing critiques about Western civilization, namely that European nations gained ascendancy by merely being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of other cultures for their own advancement. He does not try to hide the flaws and evils of the West, but does want to bring balance to the overstated critiques of recent years.  The longer I live in Asia, and the longer I study history, the more I see that although there are many beautiful and worthy aspect of non-Western cultures, there are many aspects of Western culture that are better than other places in the world (commitments to democracy, equality, progress, and innovation).  That may sound like any old colonial attitude but I’d rather think of this position as a realistic view which finds a middle ground between white guilt and white man’s burden.  From this short description of the book, you may not be convinced of Stark’s thesis so I would encourage you to read the book for yourself.  It is well written and worth your time.



The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910

This book was a fascinating snapshot of a telling moment in time for not only evangelical global missions, but also for the yet-to-be-birthed ecumenical movement.  Relying heavily on primary source archival materials, author Brian Stanley gives a detailed account of the World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910.  He includes telling behind-the-scenes conflict and negotiation leading up the conference, as well as an informative narrative of the reports of various commissions to the conference and how they were received.  I was particularly struck by several themes running through the conference that revealed the worldview of the delegates as people bound by their times, namely 1) the world was divided neatly into “Christendom” and “heathendom” 2) missions was the West taking the Gospel to rest of the world, not the other way 3) extremely few non-American or British delegates were present, and none from Africa, and 4) spreading Christianity and civilization were closely linked.  
Although I admire the dedication and enthusiasm for the cause of Christ expressed at the conference, it was both fascinating and disturbing to see in fetal form the presence of trends that have reached maturity in evangelical missions today, namely 1)  an overly optimistic view of the scientific method applied to missionary work, which was seen to hold out the promise of reducing the success of missions to figuring out the best methods, and 2) all questions of faith and church polity were off the table for discussion at the conference and the organizers bent over backwards to guarantee the participation of Anglo-Catholics.  It would seem that this second trend has birthed two children, 1)  the current trend in evangelical missions to leave the doctrinal basis for unity fuzzy in order to emphasize united mission, and 2) the ecumenical movement which sought to unite Christians globally for the sake of missions but in the end was overrun by theological liberalism and social gospel because getting specific about doctrine was seen as an impediment to unity.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of missions, and the trends in evangelical missions today as they have developed over time.   The only major weakness of this book is the price tag.  Weighing in at $40.50 USD, this is the most expensive Kindle book I have ever bought. 



Thailand Tales - This Trip's On Us

This short autobiographical book by the Tibbetts family gives a helpful, accurate window into the hopes and disappointments, joys and discouragements, and happiness and challenges of missionary service in Central Thailand.  I know this family personally and was familiar with some of their stories before I opened the book, but I also learned many things that I didn’t know about their missionary journey, including some of the difficult decisions and heartaches they encountered along the way.  The majority of the book is written by parents Scott and Jennifer, with one chapter contributed by each of their children.  The chapters from the kids are a nice touch and I imagine they would be helpful for prospective missionary families to share with their kids in order to give them some idea of what life is like for kids on the mission field.  I would recommend this quick read for anyone who wants to get a good picture of what life on the mission field is like for a normal missionary family involved in church planting.



The Unfinished Mission in Thailand: The uncertain Christian impact on the Buddhist heartland

After some general chapters discussing Thailand, Buddhism, and the history of Christian missions in Thailand up through WWII, author Samuel Kim begins discussing the liberal-evangelical divide in the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) after World War II up through the late 1970s.  This period of time roughly corresponds to the time period Kim himself served as a missionary in Thailand (1956-1978 or so) and is the best part of the book because the author knew personally many of the people involved and was in the midst of events that he discusses.  I have read other books on Thai church history and Christian missions in Thailand, but Kim fills in some missing pieces of the puzzle that I have been looking for.  

While the Presbyterian Church (USA) was becoming increasingly influenced by liberal and ecumenical theology in the mid-20th century, what were their missionaries doing in Thailand?  Missionaries of the American Presbyterian Mission (APM) returned to Thailand after World War II at the request the Church of Christ in Thailand, the largest Protestant denomination in Thailand, which the APM had founded in 1934.   But in contrast to many earlier generations of American Presbyterian missionaries who emphasized evangelism and church planting, the post-WWII generation of APM missionaries had an agenda of ecumenism and community development which they actively advocated in the CCT, discouraging evangelism, and encouraging dialogue with Buddhism without any desire for conversion.  Although the APM officially dissolved in 1957, with their missionaries becoming “fraternal workers” under the authority of CCT, APM missionaries still bore undue influence through personnel and the massive amount of money which they poured into the CCT, providing up to 70-80% of the denomination’s total revenue.  Thai church leaders became resentful of the missionaries’ paternalism and eventually grew tired of their liberal agenda which, in the view of Thai church leaders, had not helped Thai churches to grow, either spiritually or in numbers.  The number of liberal American Presbyterian missionaries eventually dwindled as budget cuts were effected in the PC(USA) and they wore out their welcome among Thai Christians.  

As he recalls these trials and travails, Kim offers his own evaluation of the events as an evangelically-minded missionary of the Presbyterian Church in Korea who worked within the CCT.  Kim wraps up the book with several short chapters on positive and negative trends in Thai Christianity at the end of the 1970s, along with prospects for the future of the church in Thailand.    Overall, I found this book very helpful in filling out my knowledge of what was happening in the CCT and the APM after WWII, while other streams of Protestant Christianity, both evangelical and pentecostal, were growing independently in the post-war period, wary of the CCT because of the influence of the liberal Presbyterians.



The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

I don’t read a lot of Puritan books because they can be hard to get into, but I enjoyed listening the the audio version of this book on contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs.  The author uses many illustrations from daily life and Scripture to show how and why complaining (which he calls “murmuring” and having a "disquieted spirit”) are absurd, unhelpful, and an affront to God’s goodness and sovereignty.  A few key illustrations still stick in my mind as particularly humbling, showing where I and others are foolish to think and act in so many prideful ways instead of humbly submitting to God’s sovereign hand in the midst of adversity, and finding joy and peace in trusting Him, instead of increasing one’s own discontent by whining and complaining, which changes nothing, except to make the situation even more unbearable.  The British narrator of this audio version added much to the pleasantness of listening to the book as I drove around Bangkok and washed dishes at home.

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