Robert A. HUNT, The Gospel among the Nations: A Documentary History of Inculturation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010. pp. xiv + 289. $35.00 pb. ISBN: 978-1-57075-874-4.
Reviewed by Patrick HAYES, Redemptorist Fathers Archives, Brooklyn, NY 11209

Spreading the Gospel to the ends of the Earth is no easy task. The heyday of missionary activity has all but expired, though a faithful remnant still takes the missionary charism very seriously. Mission seems to be dissolving into discourse on the “new evangelization” or more diffuse observations on “vocation.” How can one “put out into the deep” in ways that are both observant of the legacy of our Christian forebears and creative in inculturating the Word? This fascinating anthology of documents, pulled together by a leading missiologist, is an exemplary token of esteem for the past and suggestive of the ways modern mission will need to travel if its future is to be bright.

The Gospel among the Nations attends to all the important questions related to the Church’s missionary activity and self-reflection. Not only is there ample consideration of how the historic early preaching pushed Jesus’ words around the Mediterranean region, there are a number of selections that explore the obstacles missionaries faced over the centuries in their attempts to sink roots. For instance, Hunt calls attention to the importance of local idiom in inculcating the Gospel message and the editor uses an eighth-century Nestorian document to illustrate how vital this was in explaining to the Chinese the difference between Christian and Buddhist monastics. Failing the incorporation of linguistic particularity into their missionary activities, some missionaries were charged with bashing superstition wherever it was found. Normally Gregory the Great would recoil from such actions, but we have it from Bede that the Pope admonished the Abbot Mellitius to smash non-Christian shrines throughout England.

The knotty problem of empire and colonialism is hardly given the velvet glove. Hunt wants to make it clear that as destructive and culturally-eviscerating boosters, Christian communities were too frequently guilty of propping up their own triumphalistic view of the world. The Chinese rites controversy—the subject of several selections—is but one classic example of this. For balance, however, he shows how the churches were among the first to usher in a period of post-colonial relation and that their missionaries—sages on the front lines of this shift—were well situated in calling governments to task in their failings with vulnerable populations.

The volume is ecumenical throughout. Catholics, the Orthodox, and various Protestant communities are all given space and joint texts, such as those issued by the World Council of Churches, are also included. Some selections are very revealing, such as the personal battles found in letters that Russian Orthodox missionaries faced among the natives of Alaska in the nineteenth century. Other selections are more universal, such as the Catholic magisterial texts on missions. Important pre-Vatican II texts include extracts from Maximum illud (1919) of Benedict XV which helped foster the development of native clergy in mission lands or Fidei donum (1957) of Pius XII, which sought to call out diocesan priests from the developed world for service in mission territories. With selections such as these it will be easy for students of Catholic mission history to see the trajectories in place that led to the Second Vatican Council’s Decree Ad gentes, as well as subsequent concerns related to globalization and social justice.

There are a couple of deficits that are detectable in the editor’s selection process. The most glaring is the fact of competition between Catholics and Protestants who both vied desperately for souls. Are there no documents illustrative of this tussle? Secondly, there appears to be considerable spacegiven to the missions of Asia (especially China and Korea) and Africa but precious little to the Pacific Islands or South America.

Most of the selected documents are given a short and helpful introduction to contextualize the central idea behind the text. Coming on the heels of the centenary celebrations of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910/2010), this volume will be a welcome text in seminary courses on mission history as well as for the specialist’s own bookshelf.

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