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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Globalism and the Tower of Babel

Written by: on October 25, 2018

First off, I loved this book. Not only was it written by a historian (my undergrad major), he was taking a contrarian view that brings a fresh and much-needed counterpoint to the traditional “accepted and lazy history of civilization … where Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution.”[1] Instead, the Oxford historian Frankopan explores anew the influences and powers that have aided in shaping our world today. Places often considered on the margins of history are found to shape cultural values today. Religions are examined with fresh eyes, and surprising revelations about the interplay between faiths and their resiliency over time are made.

One of the unstated threads that seems to weave through The Silk Roads is that of globalization. While we frequently view globalization and the missionary enterprise today to be a recent product of American expansionism and evangelical zeal, Frankopan demonstrates it had earlier pathways through the silk roads that transverse Asia. It was not just the silk trade but also religion which was passed along the routes. “By the middle of the sixth century … cities including Basra, Mosul and Tikrit had burgeoning Christian populations. The scale of evangelism was such that … Merv, Gundeshapur and even Kashgar, the oasis town that was the entry point to China, had archbishoprics long before Canterbury did. These were major Christian centres many centuries before the first missionaries reached Poland or Scandinavia. Samarkand and Buhkara (in modern Uzbekistan) were also home to thriving Christian communities a thousand years before Christianity was brought to the Americas.”[2] We would do well to consider how and why Samarkand and Basra have transitioned today to other faith commitments.

As I read, I reflected on this tendency within the human condition that pushes us forward to conquer, assimilate, evangelize, and overcome other people and cultures that are different in the pursuit of sameness and the fear of otherness. The broad scale of this book from the Euphrates to the Yangtze made me think of the mythical tale of Babel[3]: that herculean effort by ancient Asians to construct a tower that would reach to the heavens, only achievable if humans consolidated effort and homogenized. It didn’t end well for them, for God confused their languages and scattered them.

It seems that in general humans have a propensity to consolidate and domineer, whereas God would rather confuse and scatter us. Why? Is it not that when we find ourselves in a place of isolation and seeming devastation, alone, that we then need God and His ways more than ourselves?

All roads today now seem to lead to Beijing. The Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative[4] seems to be enveloping much of the world and is the inheritor of the Silk Road legacy. The vastness of Chinese expansionism is remarkable, and one that I have witnessed in my travels – from China consolidating rice paddies and building highway infrastructure in remote Stung Treng, Cambodia, to investments in copper mines and agricultural lands in Zambia. By the time of its estimated completion in 2049, OBOR will stretch from the edge of East Asia all the way to East Africa and Central Europe, and it will impact a lengthy list of countries that account for 62% of the world’s population and 40% of its economic output.[5]

Frankopan reminds us that “The centuries that followed the emergence of Europe as a global power were accompanied by relentless consolidation and covetousness. In 1500, there were around 500 political units in Europe; in 1900, there were twenty-five. The strong devoured the weak.”[6] This work of globalization, begun by Mongols and Persians, continued by Russians, English, and Americans, is now being completed by the Chinese. With a lack of deference to God, will it all not end just as did Babel?

This week while I’ve been reading Frankopan, I also received a book that caught my eye, and delivered, embarrassingly, by Amazon to my obscure corner of Canada. It’s a strange book juxtaposed beside The Silk Roads. This one, Localism in the Mass Age, is a series of essays in response to the challenges of globalization. It reads as a fascinating counterpoint to this behemothic grind toward global sameness. Rather than celebrating the big and the invincibility of world shaping movements from MAGA to Davos, and Apple to Amazon, it selectively honours localism: a neighbour’s shared rhubarb, the community barbeque, the funeral of a friend, and faith expressed in the local parish. “I do think a people that celebrates newness over roots is at risk of losing whatever culture it has managed to retain. I also think those who resettle best are the ones who follow the advice Wendell Berry gave a man who asked him, years ago, where a person who has no hometown should go. Mr. Berry told him to stay put.”[7]

Once again in these posts, we return to Hunter’s plea for faithful presence[8] and Jeremiah’s call to “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”[9] Small is beautiful.

____________________________

[1] Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), xviii.

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Genesis 11.1-9.

[4] Jeff Desjardins, “Visualizing China’s Most Ambitious Megaproject”, Visual Capitalist website, Accessed October 25, 2018, http://www.visualcapitalist.com/ambitious-infrastructure-megaproject/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Frankopan, 252.

[7] Katherine Dalton, “Birthright,” in Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto, eds. Mark T. Mitchell and Jason Peters (Eugene, Oregon: Front Porch Republic Books, 2018), 28.

[8] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 243ff.

[9] Jeremiah 29:5-7, NRSV.

About the Author

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Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

7 responses to “Globalism and the Tower of Babel”

  1. Greg says:

    Mark- way to weave Babel, globalization and Chinese BRI all into one cohesive thought. I have had similar thoughts of the direction China is moving but had not made a connection with Babel and the pursuit for greatness (above or equal to God). With no foundation in true faith other than what is built by their own hands, this country has and will continue to have moral issues of knowing good and evil, right and wrong. Sometimes living the “faithful presence” seems like a rock battling a rushing river. I was blessed by the Jeremiah passage as well. Good reminder for me today on what to keep my focus on.

  2. mm M Webb says:

    Mark,
    Excellent introduction and use of the Tower of Babel image. I flew over the present-day location many times, claimed by historians, and always thought of the Biblical history associated with that area and the people. Babel must happen to precede the Pentecost. Wow! God has a long view for his sovereign plan.
    I agree with your assessment of the early spread of Christianity. We were in a artisan shop in Kabul once and going through old paintings and under the stack we found dozens of Christian paintings of Jesus Christ portrayed in different Central Asian perspectives.
    Thanks for the great post.
    M. Webb

  3. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    Your closing paragraph was stunning and strong. Thanks for Hunter’s reminder of faithful presence, and for the Jeremiah Scripture you quoted! “Small is beautiful” was a great ending!

    In your new position with the College, do you know if you have any Chinese foreign exchange students? I hope you get the opportunity to talk with them about the Silk Road. They need your valued expertise, and you will be a blessing to them as you are to us all.

    Keep up your significant work, my Brother.

  4. Excellent post, Mark!

    You post captured my attention right away and drew me in. I found it interesting that you saw the book from a historian’s perspective. Did you resonate with his frustration? His first page discussed the western viewpoint of history and the isolated perception that many of us have in regard to Christianity and culture.

    You highlight Frankopan’s perspective of globalization and write, “One of the unstated threads that seems to weave through The Silk Roads is that of globalization. While we frequently view globalization and the missionary enterprise today to be a recent product of American expansionism and evangelical zeal, Frankopan demonstrates it had earlier pathways through the silk roads that transverse Asia.” This is an imperative statement because it highlights the idea of nationalism and how that has influences perceptions. I recently heard a speaker talk about the influx of cultural and racial change within the American Church. He discussed how the increase of birth rate is changing the face of America and the church and asked us to form our response. In a world that is constantly shifting, we desire to keep things stagnant out of fear. Frankopan gives us a glimpse at the reality of religious sects and their intersection with Christianity. How would seeing history from an eastern perspective change the way that we interact with Muslims?

  5. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Mark,

    Excellent as always. Thank you for bringing us back around to recognizing the need for roots and community.

    Do you think China will finally succeed in their efforts toward globalization? Do you see anything positive coming from these efforts or only negatives? Using the book as a guide it seems that even those events that seemed devastating have shaped us in positive ways. What do you think?

  6. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Mark,
    Great perspective on this weeks reading. If we continue on with the losing of our smallness, then we become just cookie cutter communities. We saw this in Hong Kong with the “coffin” apartments. This is such a difficult community to live in, you have to wonder is there any togetherness within this way of living?

    Jason

  7. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Mark, I appreciate your historian’s perspective and weaving in the theme of globalization with Babel. Your travels and love of history inform your posts and I am curious how it all comes together when considering philanthropy? When writing, were you considering application to your project?

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