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REVIEW OF Noll and Nystrom's Clouds of Witnesses Print E-mail
Written by Kevin L. Howard   

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Kindle Fire version.


Noll and Nystrom bestow a beautiful gift on the church by letting us peek into the lives of a few dead Christians outside the West. They borrow their book title from Hebrews 12:1-2, as many might have guessed. Clouds of Witnesses is a companion to Noll's 2009 book, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith.


Noll and Nystrom write with a style commendable to other authors who desire to make history interesting and reading delightful; the authors use words and sentences how they were supposed to be used--to illuminate the subject and help the reader forget the authors.


With six general geographic sections, they deal with 17 subjects as chapters--Bernard Mizeki, John Chilembwe, and Albert Luthuli from Southern Africa; William Wadé Harris and Byang Kato from West Africa; Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum from East Africa; Pandita Ramabai, V. S. Azariah, and Sundar Singh from India; Sun Chu Kil from Korea; Dora Yu, Shi Meiyu, John Sung, Yao-Tsung Wu, Wang Mingdao, and Ignatius Cardinal Kung from China. Pictures at the beginning of each chapter help bring the characters to life.


The book's Introduction sets the table, whetting the appetite for the coming feast. The Afterword provides a much needed dessert, giving a few reflections on the main meal. With the 17-course meal they cooked up, NolI and Nystrom satisfied my hunger and at the same time left me craving more.


Not every person featured in Clouds of Witnesses will strike the evangelical reader as an orthodox Christian, and the authors know that. Some of the subjects are hard to categorize (and global south Christians might ask why we would need to.) Nonetheless since I am a Westerner, I will indulge. The wild-spirited William Wadé Harris with his John-the-Baptist-type lifestyle and his Abrahamic polygamy comes to mind. Also, Sundar Singh's Hindu-(Sikh)-flavored Christianity might fit into the odd category. The actions of John Chilembwe could disturb some pacifist readers, while the avowed communist Yao-Tsung Wu will be too bitter a soup for many Americans to tolerate. But these questionable characters cannot overshadow the diligent yet gentle Bernard Mizeki and Albert Luthuli. It is easy to love the fiery evangelist John Sung who turned his back on chemistry, despite his PhD in the subject, for a life of telling others the good news.


At the same time, we applaud the theological achievement of Byang Kato and cry at his early death. We marvel at the minds of V. Samuel Azariah and Pandita Ramabai. Before her conversion, Pandita had memorized 18,000 sacred Hindu verses by age 20 (Location 1326). We suffer with Sun Chu Kil and Wang Mingdao during their imprisonments and see Jesus sustaining them through their darkest times. While we disagree with some theology of the Catholic Ignatius Cardinal Kung, we admire his faithfulness against the cruel odds of several decades in prison. Reading of persecutions, we ache with Janani Luwum and rejoice as he says, "I live as though there will be no tomorrow" (Location 1247). Simeon Nsibambi provokes us to respect his fatherly role model and sweet sincerity of faith. We stop to catch our breath at the tireless efforts of Dora Yu and Shi Meiyu.


In the Afterword, Clouds of Witnesses draws attention to the reality of persecution and also gives a needed emphasis on the importance of missionaries--Western or otherwise. The authors balance out that observation by emphasizing nationals doing the heavy lifting once missionaries have passed the gospel and discipleship onto the locals. These are worth stressing.


Noll and Nystrom seem to subtly promote social justice as an equal partner with evangelization. "Shi Meiyu insisted on combining medicine and evangelism; she saw them both as essential to human wholeness" (Location 2248). This sort of holistic approach is typical throughout their work, letting the subjects themselves defend holism. (See Locations 616 and 1623-1624; Chilembwe's life is subtitled "Holistic Christian and Accidental Rebel," but see Locations 322-323 for a specific example). This stress on "holism" is a weakness. Authors certainly have the right to promote their views, but it seems the Bible includes good works or social justice issues as a tool for evangelism or outgrowth of Christian presence, not as an equal partner with evangelism and discipleship.


At times this work also seems to over adore cultures. With the trend moving towards global south studies, and a desire to compensate for mistakes that our forefather-missionaries made, some authors often work hard to distance themselves from missionaries of the colonial period to the extent that they may be in danger of creating another problem--over relishing the goodness of cultures while failing to take the doctrine of sin and the fallenness of man as seriously as the Bible warrants. Noll and Nystrom do let their subjects speak on sin and fallenness. A search of "sin" in the Kindle gets many location hits. And we certainly need "...greater clarity about the profusion of God's work in creating so many cultures and his power in illuminating the entire rainbow of human cultural diversity by the grace of Christ" (Location 3033). While we want to know about the Holy Spirit's work in far off places, we must also be mindful that Satan works in people and that sinners make up culture, thus leaving culture susceptible to grave sins. At times, Noll and Nystrom in their need to deal sensitively with other cultures, do not seem to give this fallen aspect its proper weight.


Even so, I highly recommend this book to any mature believer who has a special interest in global south Christianity or to a strong believer who loves well-written historic literature. The book's section on further reading provides bibliographic resources for anyone wanting to pursue global south studies.


[Since this is a review of a Kindle book, "locations" are approximates.]

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