The Church Planter’s Library (4): Global and Cultural Context

[Editor’s Note: This summer we are posting some old but good pieces from BtT. This post originally appeared on July 13, 2009.]

A good missiologist (whether North American or International) is first and foremost a theologian, but also a student of other disciplines such as world religions, cultural anthropology, history, current affairs, and anything else he can get his hands on in order to understand his context. By studying world religions, the missiologist learns to understand the core beliefs and religious practices of those to whom he will minister. From cultural anthropology, he learns to pay careful attention to the people group he is working with. He seeks to understand their beliefs, feelings, and values, as well as their patterns of behavior and material culture. From history and current affairs, he gains an understanding of the international and regional context within which he ministers.

With this in mind, this post will provide (1) a few selected introductory texts treating world religions, cultural anthropology, and contextualization, (2) a few significant books to help understand the global context, and (3) a list of select history and current affairs books for most major geographic regions of the world, including the United States.

Religious and Cultural Context

Two of the best introductions to world religions are Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths and James Lewis and William Travis, Religious Traditions of the World. Each of these books includes brief introductory sketches of the major world religious traditions.

For those interested in some basic reading about contextualization, I recommend David Hesselgrave and Edwin Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models as well as David Clark’s “Theology in Cultural Context” (Chapter Three of his To Know and Love God). For a beginner’s treatment in intercultural studies, Paul Hiebert’s Anthropological Insights for Missionaries is as good as any.

Global Studies

Here are three significant books dealing with major issues in global studies. I do not recommend them because I agree with everything they say, but because they are particularly helpful at raising significant questions and attempting to answer those same questions.

1. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argues that the 21st century will see increasingly deep-seated conflict between the world’s civilizations and the West will increasingly be at a disadvantage. The civilizational clashes of the 21st century will be mammoth; at the center of these clashes are religion and culture.

2. Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat 3.0. Friedman argues that we live in an almost-flat world. Since the turn of the century, a series of political, economic and technological factors have converged to produce a tidal wave of change in global culture, which will only fully begin to be seen in the next few years.

3. Fareed Zakariah. The Post-American World. Of the commentary on America’s decline, there seems to be no end. The Post-American World is Fareed Zakariah’s contribution to the subject. He chimes in with a more cheery voice than most, focusing more on the “rise of the rest” than the “decline of the West” and arguing that America’s future need not be so gloomy as some predict.

4. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity are excellent treatises on global Christianity.

North Africa & The Middle East

1. Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam. Bernard Lewis is the reigning king of Middle Eastern studies. In this slim little volume, he provides the reader with a concise, level-headed, and very reasonable overview of the crisis within Islam. He gives a brief history of the rise and development of Islam, the Crusades, and of the conflict between Islam, Christianity, and modern western culture.

2. Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History. In this book, Lewis describes the Arabs and their place in the course of human history. He focuses on their identity, achievements, and relations with the non-Arab world.

3. Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival. Nasr provides an excellent exposition of the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam, analyzing its history as well as its contemporary socio-cultural and political manifestations across the Muslim world.

4. For books on Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, see the Central Asia section below.

Central Asia

1. Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game. Hopkirk’s book is the single best history of Central Asia. It is 524 pages long, however, and one must be committed in order to make it through the book.

2. Robert Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary. Journalist Robert Kaplan provides a fascinating and depressing account of his travels in Central Asia (as well as parts of Europe and the Middle East), weaving together history, current affairs, and personal narratives.

3. Central Asian countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are the beneficiaries of an avalanche of new novels, travelogues, and histories. Here are a few that I recommend. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd is a lively interpretation of Iran. Ghost Wars by Steve Coll is a lively but lengthy history of Afghanistan in the late 20th century. The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are masterful novels depicting life in Pakistan. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is a novel about a young Pakistani man living in the United States, wrestling with 9/11 and its aftermath.

South Asia

1. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight. Collins and Lapierre provide a fast-paced and intimate account of India’s 1947 break from British rule and her subsequent partitioning into the two autonomous nations of India and Pakistan. The authors focus on India’s last British viceroy Lord Mountbatten, India’s spiritual leader Ghandi, Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Hindu statesman Jawaharlal Nehru.

2. Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods. Journalist Edward Luce provides an accurate, narrative structured, and humorous account of the rise of modern India.

East Asia

1. Philip Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow. Pan gives us the “no holds barred” narrative of recent Chinese history, and in particular China’s attempt to balance its version of capitalism with its unique brand of authoritarianism. He does so by focusing on 11 profiles of China’s dissidents: a young entrepreneur’s open defiance of the police by attending the funeral of Chinese dissident Zhao Ziyang, a doctor arrested for blowing the whistle on the government’s handling of the SARS epidemic, a filmmaker’s documentary about a Mao-era dissidents who wrote a prison manifesto in her own blood, and others.

2. John Pomfret, Chinese Lessons. This book is a lively, witty, and intimate portrait of five Chinese nationals who the author met in 1981 during Deng Xiaoping’s cautious reopening of China to the West and China’s rise as a police state flirting with capitalism. The author, John Pomfret, was an American exchange student at Nanjing University in the 1980s, and afterwards served two stints as a journalist in China. The author has a wickedly keen sense of humor.

Sub-Saharan Africa

1. Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence is a very long, but eminently readable account of the recent history of Africa. Meredith is unsurpassed in the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the continent.

2. David Lamb, The Africans. Though slightly outdated (published in 1990), this travelogue by David Lamb is still relevant as it probes the tumultuous decades of mid-to-late 20th century Africa. Lamb’s historical footwork is interwoven with interviews and narratives gleaned from his years as a reporter on the continent.

3. Also helpful are the many travelogues and current affairs texts that deal with life in particular African contexts. One of the most significant is Martin Meredith, Mugabe. Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe. This book, not for the faint of heart, is an account of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence, the (culturally Christian) Mugabe’s rise to power, and his metamorphosis from responsible revolutionary into brutal dictator willing to slaughter his own people, including friends and associates. This book allows Westerners a peek into the life of millions of Africans who live under dictatorship.

Pacific Rim

1. Mary Somers Heidhues, Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Heidhues’ book is aptly named. It is a concise history of Southeast Asia. It is not a particularly exciting read, but it is helpful as an accurate and relatively easy to read account of Southeast Asian history.

2. I am unaware of any good current affairs texts or travelogues for Southeast Asia / Pacific Rim. I invite our readership to provide suggestions in the comment box.


1. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence. Barzun’s provides an interpretive history of the past 500 years of Western Cultural Life. It is a masterfully encyclopedic, provocative, witty, and accessible history, although it is a bit long (877 pp.).

2. Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent. Jenkins provides a fairly balanced assessment of Europe’s religious condition, focusing on Islam and Christianity.

3. Central and Eastern Europe differ quite a bit from Western Europe. One of my favorite books related to the former Soviet Union is Owen Matthews, Stalin’s Children, a historical autobiography taking the reader back through three generations of life in the USSR.

The Americas

*Note: I am unable to provide good recommendations for North and South America, with the exception of the USA (below). I invite our readership to provide suggestions in the comment box.

The United States of America

1. Norman Cantor, The American Century. Cantor provides a readable and provocative overview of European and American influence on 20th century global culture. This book could just as easily fit under the “Europe” or “Global Studies” sections above.

2. Robert Remini, A Short History of the United States. Here is the best one-stop history of the United States of America.

3. Tom Wolfe, Hooking Up and I Am Charlotte Simmons. Tom Wolfe is a gimlet-eyed observer of the American cultural scene. Of his many books, I recommend these two. Hooking Up is a witty and perceptive collection of essays published in 2000, exposing “the lurid carnival actually taking place in the mightiest country on earth in the year 2000.” I Am Charlotte Simmons is the 2004 novel that follows up the essays.

What new books (since 2009) can you add to the list? 

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  1. CA Worker   •  

    Here are some other books on Iran that may interest your readers

    1) Christiane Bird, Neither East Nor West: One Woman’s Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: Pocket Books, 2001), 396 pages. Bird, a single female, went into Iran by herself to write this book with little knowledge of Farsi or Iranian culture; the book is a travelogue of her months in Iran. Bird’s work helps dispel common misconceptions that Americans have about Iran, provides amusing social tidbits, and gives an overview of certain important places that one should see. There is a liberal and feminist bias, but this only adds to the flavor.

    2, 3) Andrew Burke, Lonely Planet: Iran (2008) and Rick Steves’ Iran. The Lonely Planet book is perhaps the best tour book on Iran. Rick Steves’ three part video is the best tour video on Iran; it details his 2008 tour in Iran. Both give briefs on some of the cultural mores that one needs to know, as well as some of the better places to see, eat and stay.

    4) Sandra Mackey, The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation (New York: Dutton, 1996), 426 pages. Part IV, 271-380 is especially important. While a bit dry for those who do not like history, Mackey provides a record of Iran from its ancient times to the present. Mackey reviews the main dynasties and kingdoms of Iran, and shows why each succeeded and failed; the work helps one grasp why Iranians are how they are today.

    5,6) Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006), 385 pages and Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons 2003; revised 2008), 258 pages. While Kinzer’s works present somewhat of a jaundiced view on US foreign policy, they do 1) show why it would be irresponsible for Christians to support a US attack on Iran and 2) help the reader understand why Iran is the way it is today .

    7) Maria O’Shea, Culture Shock! A Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Iran (Singapore: Times Editions, 1999), 271 pages. This book is for anyone interested in living in or traveling to Iran. While dated, it helps explain in detail some of the idiosyncrasies of Iranians and their culture.

    8) Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi`i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi`ism (Binghamton, VT: Vail-Ballou Press, 1985) 297 pages. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and recent events in Lebanon have greatly increased Western interest in the Shi’i branch of Islam, which is much less known than Sunni Islam. This volume provides a balanced and comprehensive treatment of a complex religious movement that has flourished since Islam’s earliest days. Although it attempts no new or sophisticated interpretations, specialist and nonspecialist alike will benefit from its lucid exposition of both elite and popular Shi’ism. Especially valuable is the way the work presents modern critical scholarship on Shi’i history alongside the orthodox history, which still has great influence on the religion’s self-understanding. A brief but useful concluding account locates the Iranian Revolution and Imam Khomeini within the framework of Iranian Shi’ism (

  2. Dougald McLaurin III   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    A while back I asked a professor about books concerning S. America. This is one that he recommended.

    Ondina E. Gonzalez and Justo L. Gonzalez, Christianity in Latin America: A History (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

    Of course, this only seems to deal with the religious aspect of it.


  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    CA Worker, thank you for your “hugely” helpful list of books! I’ve read the Mackey text. It is eminently readable and helpful, though a bit outdated. the kinzer text I think helps the reader to understand what the Iranina government thinks of US foreign policy (although kinzer himself is american.) the other books I haven’t read. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    Dougald, thank you for being the first to supply a South America text!

  4. Nathan   •  

    Great stuff yet again Doc. Being that we live in a city where all of these peoples are in one place I need to read all of them, thus my predicament, I dont have time to do so. Any recommendations on a single book that would encompass reverse missions in America that has a more urban bent? (I know this is a bit of a narrow topic)

  5. Ken   •  

    Dr Ashford,

    I agree totally that a good missiologist is foremost a good theologian. You have listed some great books. I like reading Thomas Friedman’s work, the one you mention, and the “Lexus and the Olive Tree” were very helpful to me in gaining an understanding of both globalization and his other works have helped me in understanding more of the middle east.

    Also you mentioned Paul Hiebert, He also has a good book titled “Transforming Worldviews” that could be helpful.

    I would add that I love reading “Fast Company” magazine. Ok, I know it is not a missional book but a magazine. For North America it helps me see where some of our culture is going even though it is a totally secular work. I find this helps a lot in working with planting churches and new ideas for the future. Thanks for leading the discussion.

  6. Jesse S.   •  

    In the South Asia category, a good addition to the list would be “Hinduism: A Brief Look at Theology, History, Scriptures, and Social System with Comments on the Gospel in India” by H.L. Richard. Despite what you might think with a subtitle that egregiously long, it is a fairly recent work. In it Richard offers a comprehensive but brief overview of the phenomenon of Hinduism. Another suggestion for the South Asia category is the fascinating book called “Being Indian” by Pavan K. Varma. This book is a penetrating survey of the Indian mindset written by an Indian. It is indespensable in coming to an understanding of the Indian/Hindu worldview.

  7. John   •  

    In the East Asia category, there are 2 additional books that I would recommend. The first is Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnson. Johnson is a Wall Street Journal correspondent who was living in China. The book is a well-written account of three individuals who clearly illustrate the changes taking place in contemporary China. It would really help readers understand the political and cultural situation. The second book is Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. This book is a biography of Mao Zedong that is a massive work (800+ pages) clearly written with an agenda of painting a portrait of Mao as the most evil human who ever lived. However, the account is well researched and convincingly presented. The book will aid the reader in understanding how Mao’s rule has affected the contemporary Chinese political and cultural landscape.

  8. rynoyak   •  

    South American context:
    “Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life” by Nouwen, McNeill, Morrison shows a humanitarian, social, Catholic point of view developed with heavy South American experience: shows context of work in S.A. and is not necessarily a read for emulation, though there are definitely good things in it.

    U.S. context:
    “Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World” by Bob Briner, though very reactionary, shows the great need for an evangelistic lifestyle involving all realms of life rather than “professional Christians” doing the ministry work and rather than having compartmentalized lives of work & ministry. Weed through to the nuggets.

    Tibetan context:
    “Cultivating a Daily Meditation” by the Dalai Lama is written lectures that show the essence of Tibetan Buddhism (as well as a lot of other stuff): “.”
    Also, the Dalai Lama has a podcast on different things that with just one listen give a taste of the esoteric and philosophical aspects of the unique religion (in other words, stuff of the lamas/monks rather than the common people).
    “Civilized Shamans” by Geoffrey Samuel is a major work of history, religion, culture, etc. that is deep and academic, but it gives a good understanding of the duality of the people and their religion: that of the religious leaders and that of the lay person (also a great help for any research project).
    “Sharing Christ in the Tibetan Buddhist World” by Marku Tsering is perhaps the most purported book on Christian work among a Tibetan context, and it has good background info for history, culture, and religion. It also shows the majority method of working among Tibetans: slowness, which is not recommended but does clearly show the majority method one would be encountering among most other workers in this context as well as many if not most of the national believers as well (it has spread around quickly, which is ironic).
    “Genesis in Space & Time” by Francis [Schaeffer] is a great work for this context because of the needs of understanding that Tibetans need: there is a Creator, the truth of creation, who & what is man, what is sin.
    “And Jesus Said” by Barclay gives, as he does so well, excellent ways of understanding and teaching on various parables of Jesus, which lends itself to the didactic methods and oral context of Tibetans.
    “Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts” by Gailyn Van Rheenen is an indispensable work for arguably every context, but certainly it is for one of a religion that is syncretistic, inherrently animistic, shamanistic, and veiled in Buddhist esoteric philosophy.
    Even works such as “The Problem of Pain” by Lewis and “Creation Order Theodicy” by Bruce [Proverbs ] Little are great for developing a biblical understanding in order to respond to the prevalence of suffering in Buddhism.
    “Dear Lhamo” by the Harthcocks is an excellent work for practicing English with Tibetans as well as having a great method of conversing with them about God.

    Buddhist context:
    “Into the Buddhist Mind” by Gary and Evelyn Harthcock shows the experience and knowledge and study of the great couple, and it is written in very understandable brevity without sacrificing content.

    Life on the Field context:
    “Christian Manifesto” by Schaeffer lends itself to some of the government issues faced by workers and nationals.
    “When You Get to the End of Yourself” by Purkiser, an oldie of awesomeness (mostly), is great for dealing difficulty in life and the subsequent questions.
    “Lies Women Believe: And the Truth that Sets Them Free” by Nancy Leigh DeMoss lends itself to helping women in the work of balancing family responsibilities and apostolic/”sent-out-one” calling and general personal responsibility for the Great Commission as a believer.
    For the issues and demands of parenting in foreign contexts, I recommend “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” by Murkoff & Mazel, and “Babywise” by Ezzo & Buckman is also excellent.
    Perhaps an aspect of life and work on the field that is not taken advantage of enough is the rapid growth and prevalence of the internet. Of course, many place still don’t have that as an option, but if you are unable to access what’s available on the internet yourself undoubtedly, you could obtain CDs of [your home church]’s podcasts or sermon downloads or even another such as Dr. Akin, SEBTS chapel, another pastor or church. This allows for you to keep up with your home church, as well as to have wonderful family worship time together. [Something that would make Paul and the early sent-out-ones amazed I’m sure; whereas, they spent years with little to no contact with their home body.]

    Methodology [some authors I’m ignorant of]:
    “Acts Twenty-Nine” by Bruce Carlton.
    “7 Commands of Christ” .
    “ST4T” .
    “Universal Disciple” by the T. Wolf himself .
    “A New Believer’s First Seven Days with Jesus” being a little different from “7 Commands” [and flowing into the “Handy Guide to Church”] is another.

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Ryno,you are a heavyweight man! thanks for the recommendations. I haven’t even read half of the books that you mentions, so I’ll pick out a couple of them that I think are particularly helpful. First, Mentor and Multiply’s “7 commands” discipleship model is very helpful for teaching Americans about life-on-life discipleship, cascading chains of discipleship, etc. Second, van Rheenen’s book on animism is a classic text for those who will be working with animistic or folk religious people…

  10. Kyle   •  

    I would recommend these books to anyone interested in working in Southeast Asia mainland (Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar).

    “The Gospel of Buddha” Paul Carus. This is a book of excerpts from some of the Buddha’s teachings.

    “Siddhartha” Hermann Hesse. This is a biography of Prince Siddhartha who became the Buddha.

    “What the Buddha Taught” Walpola Sri Rahula. This is a well written explanation of Buddhism.

    “Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya” Bhikkhu Bodhi. This is a book of excerpts from some of the Buddha’s more well known teachings.

    “Ten Lives of Buddha” M.L. Manich Jumsai. The Buddha had many lives before he became the Buddha. This is a book telling the stories of his ten lives before his enlightenment.

    “Golden Peninsula: Culture and Adaptation in Mainland Southeast Asia” Charles F. Keyes. This is a look at culture and life of Southeast Asia mainland.

    “Water Buffalo Theology” Kosuke Koyama. This is a series of essays written by a former Japanese missionary to northern Thailand.

    “A History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings to 1500” and “History of Christianity in Asia: 1500 To 1900” Samuel Hugh Moffett. These two works are a good reference books for getting an overview of missions history in Asia.

    “A Dictionary of Asian Christianity” Scott W. Sunquist & David Wu Chu Sing & John Chew Hiang Chea. This is a less detailed reference but more comprehensive.

    “Poles Apart: Contextualizing the Gospel in Asia” John Davis. This is a close look at contextualization written by a seasoned missionary.

    “Communicating Christ in the Buddhist World” Paul De Neui and David Lim. This is one book in a series of five sold at William Carey Library.

    “Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts” Gailyn Van Rheenen. Western Christians do not always give much thought to the world of spirits, but many of the people to whom they go do. This is a good book for helping missionaries work through this issue.

    “Thailand: Spirits Among Us” Marlane Guelden. This is one of the only anthropological studies of animism in Thailand.

    “Demon Possession and Allied Themes” John L. Nevius. A close look at demon possession in Asia, written by the author of the famous work “The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches.”

  11. Jay Wooten   •  

    Is anyone familiar with James H. Rutz, The Open Church: How to Bring Back the Exciting Life of the First Century Church?

  12. andrew jones   •  

    great list of books, bruce. thanks
    and yes, jay. I have read Jim Rutz’s The Open Church – and Jim is a friend. His book is fun to read and a little like Viola’s “Pagan Christianity” but published much earlier.

  13. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Kyle, you are the man. Thank you for the suggestions, many of which I have not yet read. I have read van Rheenen, Hesse, and Nevius and recommend those highly.

    Andrew, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I’ve kept up with you for years now through friends of mine. Hope to meet you sometime.

  14. JL   •  

    I can remember a point when I was so fed up with methodology based mostly on cultural anthropology/history/current events(with Scripture used almost as an afterthought) that I was ready to reject it altogether. However over the past 7 years, I have not only seen what can happen as a result of poor theology. I’ve also seen what can happen as a result of great theology completely divorced from a good understanding of cultural anthropology/history/current events. Well intended, but sometimes with disasterous results.

    Every cross-cultural worker WILL minister from a particular view of anthropoloty/history/current events. The question is to what degree it will be limited by the person’s on cultural background–perhaps limited to an American mindset–our even a particular regional American mindset (Southern or Midwestern for example).

    Strategically studying the best of what these fields offer can, for example, help us recognize what parts of our thinking and methodology are biblical and which are rooted in our own culture (the negative, the positive and the neutral)–so that we can in turn more accurately evaluate another cultural context and more clearly communicate the gospel within it.

  15. JL   •  

    Bruce, the books you recommended for Central Asia are good ones. I would add that if Turkey is included in the category of Central Asia, that there are many additional books, more specific to Turkey that may be helpful. It’s history and geography, among other things, have resulted in a current culture that while similar to the rest of Central Asia, is quite distinctive. The strong national identity and cultural pride, the relative economic prosperity and modernization, and the democratic government are just a few things that have shaped the country in quite different ways than much of former soviet central asia.

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