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.” 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.” 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: 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 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.
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.” 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.”
Once again in these posts, we return to Hunter’s plea for faithful presence 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.” Small is beautiful.
 Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), xviii.
 Ibid., 55.
 Genesis 11.1-9.
 Jeff Desjardins, “Visualizing China’s Most Ambitious Megaproject”, Visual Capitalist website, Accessed October 25, 2018, http://www.visualcapitalist.com/ambitious-infrastructure-megaproject/.
 Frankopan, 252.
 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.
 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.
 Jeremiah 29:5-7, NRSV.