IVP - Behind the Books - Book Review Archives

April 18, 2011

William Wadé Harris and Other Christians You've Never Heard Of


When Clouds of Witnesses, the new book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, appeared on my desk recently, I was intrigued by the premise: an up-close look at seventeen Christians from Africa and Asia who lived remarkable lives of faith and leadership. I scanned the chapter list and was also interested to note that I had not heard of any of them. This was not the usual roster of Western heroes of the faith.

I have the extraordinary privilege of attending church with Carolyn and Mark, so I was excited to learn that they would be leading a six week Sunday School class based on the content of Clouds of Witnesses. After just one class I was hooked!

We explored the fascinating life of William Wadé Harris, an African evangelist/apostle who traveled the Ivory Coast during the early 1900s making converts to a unique brand of Christianity that sprung from his own mixed background: a combination of native religion, Methodism, Anglicanism—and a visit from the angel Gabriel in which Harris was supposedly commanded to wear a long white robe, burn all his tribal fetishes, perform Christian baptisms, carry a long cane, preach Christ everywhere and become a prophet like Elijah. He was eventually instrumental in establishing hundreds of churches along the Ivory Coast, many of which still survive today as “Harris churches.” He is also considered by many to be one of the originators of today’s prosperity gospel.

Harris is a controversial figure. Historians ask, “Was he truly Christian? Was he sane? (His wife thought not.) How did African indigenous religion and culture shape the Christianity that Harris practiced? What good did he accomplish? What evils resulted? How did his influence shape African and now global Christianity?”

After hearing Carolyn describe his life and legacy in more detail, I find those questions all the more perplexing. Perhaps the most interesting part of the story for me was this: when Harris moved on from one town to the next, he would create “churches” to continue his mission, appointing 12 apostles, often from recently converted fetish witch doctors. He instructed them to build churches and to “wait for a white man with a Bible,” someone who could come and explain to them the meaning of their conversion more fully.

And here’s the amazing part: they did—by the thousands! Imagine the scene when, after World War One ended, white missionaries began returning to Africa to resume their pre-war work:

“Ten years later British Methodist missionary W. J. Platt was among the early white arrivals on the scene. In town after town he found church structures full of people waiting for ‘teachers of the Book.’ In the meantime they had learned a few hymns from store clerks; some of their leaders had walked great distances to hear a Christian sermon, then walked back to repeat it as best they could to their own people. One of their few readers would select a single verse from the Bible and explain it over and over to those who listened. By 1924 thousands of people waited in and around these buildings for missionaries to continue the work that their Prophet Harris had begun.”

I get chills just thinking about it. And I ask myself, am I as hungry as they were to learn from the Bible? They waited for a decade for someone to teach them about God's Word. I have access to all kinds of resources and teachers, and yet I have to remind myself to study the Bible regularly.

I can’t say for sure that all of Harris’s theology was sound (at least by today's theological and cultural standards). He did get some major things wrong—like polygamy, for instance. But I believe the Spirit of God used him, with of all his syncretism and imperfections, just as he uses the strange blend of cultural influences and theology we all carry with us. It’s encouraging to think that if God could use a character like Harris, then he can use a broken, imperfect character like me. And it's humbling to realize how unaware most of us are of the history and contributions of the non-Western church, and how much they have to teach us.

There are many other fascinating figures just waiting to be discovered in Clouds of Witnesses. Ever heard of Watchman Nee? Yeah, he’s not in there. But the Chinese revival preacher Dora Yu, who was instrumental in Watchman Nee’s conversion to Christianity, is. I hope you’ll take the time to read about these more obscure—yet no less important—figures of Christian history, these stories behind the stories. May their lives give you cause to think, pray, marvel and hope in the God who is always at work bringing people to himself and accomplishing his purposes through vital Christian faith lived out in a diversity of global contexts.

Posted by Rebecca Larson at 2:52 PM

January 21, 2010

"I'd Like to Thank . . ."

As the new year begins, it’s awards season—and while we don’t want to blow our own horn, get ready for a trumpet solo.

First, Christianity Today has just announced the 2010 Christianity Today Book Awards. Their judges reviewed 472 books from seventy-two publishers and came up with twelve winners—four from IVP, more than any other publisher!

God Is Great, God Is Good, edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, won in Apologetics/Evangelism.

Deep Church by Jim Belcher won in The Church/Pastoral Leadership.

Longing for God by Richard Foster and Gayle D. Beebe won in Spirituality.

The New Shape of World Christianity by Mark A. Noll won in Missions/Global Affairs.

Following close behind are the honors coming from Leadership JournalThe Golden Canon Leadership Book Awards. Four IVP books made their list of the ten most valuable books for church leaders from 2009, again outdistancing any other single publisher.

Longing for God by Richard Foster and Gayle D. Beebe was on their very short list of books for The Leader’s Inner Life.

Deep Church by Jim Belcher was the best of the best for The Leader’s Outer Life.

Love Is an Orientation by Andrew Marin and The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah were both on the short list for The Leader’s Outer Life as well.

Finally, Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds gave his award for Book of the Decade. The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber took home the bacon. Read Byron’s heartfelt and thoughtful comment on this very influential book.

(Boy, my lips are sore.)

Posted by Andy Le Peau at 2:54 PM

June 26, 2008

Jesus Creed on IVP

Scot McKnight, prolific author and blogger, just posted several entries plugging recent IVP books. In a post on evangelizing postmoderns, he recommends two books. The first is True Story by James Choung:

Choung begins in a different place and it makes all the difference in the world for the gospel: instead of beginning with guilt, he begins with humans designed for good. So, he critiques the bridge strategy by making a better strategy. . . . The book is amply “storified” and is a huge, huge step forward in evangelism. Pastors and parents need this book; youth ministers and college ministers need this book.

The second book is I Once Was Lost by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp, which McKnight describes as "sound thinking. And they know that conversion is mysterious and organic. Good for these two authors; I applaud the effort of seeking to understand conversion as a process and that postmoderns have a story to tell, a postmodern story of conversion." (Christianity Today also recently reviewed this book here.)

And McKnight also gave kudos to IVP's dictionary series. He says:

The IVP dictionaries are one of the finest gifts to the church of this generation. Whenever a new one comes out, I like to spend the evening dipping into it here and there. The newest one is edited by Tremper Longman and Peter Enns, and it is called Dictionary of the OT: Wisdom, Poetry, Writings. Here’s why I think pastors and students need these dictionaries:
First, they access gobs and gobs of information, distill it and put it into a reasonably short article.
Second, the bibliographies are astounding.
Third, while these dictionaries are theologically alert, they are not bound to the traditional conservative viewpoint. In other words, you might be in for some surprises.
Now here’s my claim: these dictionaries represent the finest in evangelical scholarship and reveal a growing interaction with all dimensions of the scholarly world. Yes, it is true: I was a co-editor of the first one and we are soon to begin the process of revising that volume, but I still contend these dictionaries are playing a hand in the growing shifts in evangelicalism.
Posted by Al Hsu at 3:41 PM

June 19, 2008

Enthusiastic Academic Blogger

Our very efficient and productive marketing department kindly keeps editors in the loop by routing copies of advertising and book reviews in large packs. The tag on the top lists the various members of our department who read through the stack of items one by one and then route them to a colleague. Such are the proportions of some of these stacks that routing becomes more like a game of hot potato, in which it's best to wait until a colleague has left his or her office before you zip into their office, deposit the pile in their in-basket and zip back to your own chair.

At any rate, I was reading through one of these stacks the other day, and I came across a review by blogger Chris Tilling for our Old Testament Theology set by John Goldingay. The review is in five parts in his April 2008 blog: It is rare to see academic books reviewed with such unabashed glee. Here is an excerpt:

I just can't put them down! I am literally giggling as I read it, lapping up the insight. Page after page has surprises for me. Again and again I find myself shaking my head with excitement and new realisations. In the future, if I recommend any books relating at all to the bible or theology, I will recommend these first.


. . . In the next few posts today, I will be citing passages, noting what others have said, and suggesting discussion points. . . . And a third and final volume is on the way! Flippin exciting!

Though I certainly can't claim any personal credit for this book, reading a review like this for an InterVarsity Press book is a great ending to any day.

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 3:01 PM | Comments (4) are closed

May 21, 2008

Have You Seen It Yet?

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian movie is out. My family saw it on Friday night. Our kids were a bit troubled by how different it was from the book--noting that there was a lot more fighting! However, Maggie (11) also commented that she was really frustrated throughout the movie that Aslan didn't come to help them. And that is exactly the feeling that Lewis wanted to evoke in us.

I think the movie caught some of the most important themes--especially drawing our attention to how Lucy saw Aslan when the others and yet stayed with the others rather than following him.

USA Today had a very thoughtful review, saying, "The filmmakers faced the challenge of turning a beloved book with a slow plot into a modern film, but also one that retains the story's spiritual messages."

"The underlying messages are so important, and so vital to the story," says Douglas Gresham, Lewis' stepson and co-producer of the new film. "Which are the return to faith, truth, justice, honesty, honor, glory, personal commitment, personal responsibility. Also the message (that) no matter how far away we stray, there's only one way back."

If you are looking for a companion to your movie experience, or if you like me, need a reference to help you sort out what was and was not actually a part of Lewis's, you might look for A Reader's Guide to Caspian by Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead. The authors provide a guided tour of Prince Caspian highlighting characters, setting and framework, with rich background details to enhance your reading of the story. Also included are questions designed for book discussion groups. An amusing review of the book says

Delving into literary forms and devices such as allegory and "rescue motif," they tastefully reveal the method behind the story's magic. And if you suspect these authors to be a couple heartless lab coats, eager to terminate the spirit of a masterpiece--rest assured.

Now is a great time to return to Narnia via the movies, Lewis's book or a literary companion. Aslan is waiting.

Posted by Cindy Bunch at 8:44 AM | Comments (1) are closed

December 14, 2007

A gospel presentation for the 21st century

Recent years have generated much fruitful discussion about what it means for the gospel to be more fully embodied and holistic. Christians are rediscovering the sense that evangelism is not just about giving people an escape ticket to heaven, but mobilizing kingdom followers to be active in God's mission here on earth.

One of today's evangelistic pioneers is James Choung, the divisional director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in San Diego. In his work with college students, James has found that some of the older evangelistic models and diagrams don't connect well with today's generation because the approaches are too individualistic and don't grapple enough with global justice issues. So James developed a way to explain Christianity that takes societal brokenness as a starting point and then invites people in both to personal redemption and salvation as well as cultural transformation and healing.

What's great is that this more holistic approach to witness is bearing fruit, with record levels of conversions and Christian commitment among InterVarsity chapters in the San Diego area and southern California. We're pleased to be able to share James's expertise in his forthcoming book True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In, releasing in spring 2008.

Leonard Sweet says that James's gospel presentation and diagram "promise to be for evangelism in the twenty-first century what the 'Four Spiritual Laws' were for the twentieth century." The book uses a fictional narrative of two students (one a disillusioned believer, one a hostile skeptic) wrestling through whether Christianity is worth believing in. It's a fun read. There's also a companion booklet, Based on a True Story, intended for giveaway use.

The book and booklet will be available in a few months, but you can get a preview of James's approach with this three-minute YouTube video of The Big Story.

Posted by Al Hsu at 10:26 AM

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