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Books fail to recognize the mission field at our front door


About 15 years ago, I heard urban scholar Ray Bakke speak about the internationalization of America. He claimed we were experiencing the largest migration of people in human history and that many of them were coming to the U.S.
When we shop at the mall or watch a high school basketball game, we are just as likely to be with people from China, Kenya and Guatemala as we are folks born in California, Kentucky or Georgia, Bakke said. He ended his speech by saying God had brought the mission field to our front door.
The human migration Bakke spoke about continues unabated as immigrants continue to move to our shores. Books by three authors help us think about how we should view these newcomers.
Perry Cotham, adjunct professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., takes the broadest view. Just as Brian Greene’s well-known “The Elegant Universe” explains physics to the average person, “One World, Many Neighbors: A Christian Perspective on Worldviews” provides a simple introduction to the world’s major faiths.
Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus increasingly live in our neighborhoods. Cotham prepares a buffet of the world’s different spiritual offerings so that the reader can sample each one, and while the foods are displayed with equality and dignity, Cotham hopes that the Christian worldview will be most pleasing to the taste.
Using what Brian McLaren, who has an endorsement on the back cover of the book, calls orthopraxy over orthodoxy (that is, stressing the practice of Christian love over the teaching of Christian doctrine), Cotham makes friends and builds relationships with those in non-Christian faiths as a basis for a civil discussion of the differences in belief. Appropriately, two other endorsements on the back cover come from a Hindu and Muslim.
Cotham addresses Christians in two different ways. Some, finding the Christian worldview wanting, begin to seek answers from other perspectives. Cotham goes to the core of the non-Christian perspectives, and then gently leads the reader back to Christianity. Other believers simply ignore what they do not agree with or understand. Cotham urges them to think about non-Christian faiths in light of Scripture.
Daniel Carroll’s “Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible” makes a similar case with regard to Hispanic immigration. Carroll, who teaches at Denver Seminary, argues that most Christians in the majority culture in America do not understand either the Latinos who are moving to the U.S. or the biblical material about how Christians should think about these newcomers.
Carroll calls Christians to reconsider their starting point in the immigration debate. He catalogs material first from the Old Testament and then from the New that is relevant to the massive influx of Latino peoples into this nation. He seeks to broaden the debate from its current focus — the threats of immigration to national identity and the economy — to include seeing the new immigrants as people made in the image of God who often hold to a Christian worldview.
He draws a parallel between the way the Jews in Jesus’ day saw the Samaritans — as outsiders who threatened the Jewish way of life — with Anglo Christians in America who see increasing numbers of Hispanics as a danger to their way of life.
Carroll calls Christians in the majority culture to embrace Hispanics just as Jesus accepted the Samaritans. Christians face not just the border between the U.S. and Mexico, Carroll claims, but also a border separating the secular view of immigrants from God’s outlook explained in Scripture.
Readers seeking a general introduction to thinking about the internationalization we face will find both books engaging, but with some limitations. Both volumes suffer from the results of making complex issues simple. They resolve the issue partially by providing more direction in lengthy endnotes.
Many readers will be surprised, some alarmed and others pleased at how Cotham interprets the Bible. For example, Cotham discusses some biblical texts that suggest reincarnation, and has a striking biblical response to the question, “Do all roads lead to the same God?”
Those taking up Carroll’s book will be amazed at the sizeable amount of biblical material that speaks to the immigration issue, but disappointed that Carroll often does little more than catalog it for inspection.
My major disappointment with both volumes is that neither treats the mission of the church. Cotham’s orthopraxy approach seems to prohibit him from discussing God’s vision of evangelizing the non-Christian world, while Carroll offers no call to win immigrants to Christ.
Although not religious in nature, another book being used in Christian circles to evaluate immigration issues is “Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America” by Dowell Myers.
Ironically, it directly addresses the issue of mission. Myers calls Americans to the mission (his word) of welcoming immigrants because we need them to booster our retiring boomer workforce, and to become the taxpayers and home-buyers of tomorrow.
Filled with graphs and statistics supported by substantial documentation, Myers’ major argument is that the cultural assimilation and upward mobility of Latino immigrants in California (which is 15 years further into the Hispanic influx than the rest of the nation) suggests that the children of these immigrants may be the taxpayers and workforce of the next decade, funding the retirement of all us Anglo baby boomers. Those seeking a clear analysis of the immigration issues, somewhat lacking in the Carroll book, will find a wealth of detail here.
Myers says nothing about evangelism, but the application to the church seems rather transparent. Not only are the immigrants future taxpayers, but they are potential Christians. As congregations gray and as pews sit empty, churches need look no further than the Hispanic sections of any American city for a mission field.
Cotham states a great truth: We need to understand our non-Christian neighbors better. Carroll is also correct: Christians must think about immigration theologically.
But neither goes far enough.
Both give too little attention to the biblical call to mission. What is the point of being friends with non-Christians or accepting immigrants into our community, if their eternal destiny remains unchanged because nobody raised the God-demanded issue of mission?

HAROLD SHANK is the Chronicle’s reviews editor. He is a professor of Old Testament at Oklahoma Christian University.

Filed under: Reviews

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