Some months ago, I was visiting a woman from my congregation in the hospital. She had undergone an emergency procedure and she was recovering in the ICU. By the time I visited her, she was feeling much better, sitting up in her bed and looking ahead to a full recovery. She was told she would be in the hospital and rehab for a couple of weeks.
On her hospital bedside table, I saw a copy of Peter Frankopan’s book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World and we started talking about it. She told me how much she was enjoying it and I thought, “Oh, this lucky lady. I wish I could lay in bed for two weeks and read this book!”
As a lifelong lover of history, this book was a joy for me to read. It covers an incredible span of territory, bridging East and West, through the rise and fall of empires across the centuries. This monumental book takes one central idea: that the various “silk roads” or routes of trade, exchange, war, and interaction across this great expanse of land are the way that culture, business, religion and learning has has spread and held the world together.
Frankopan delights to dwell on lesser-known regions, cities and stories as as way of opening up arcane history to the popular reader. He is adept at tying in seemingly small incidents into the larger narrative he wants to tell. He writes, “There was good reason why the cultures, cities and peoples who lived along the Silk Roads developed and advanced: as they traded and exchanged ideas, they learnt and borrowed from each other, stimulating further advances in philosophy, the sciences, language and religion.”
Frankokan clearly has a “globalist” mindset, and it is one that can be instructive to readers and leaders here in the United States. Headlines about the rise of China, or immigration policy, or economic indicators can all cause people to fear or retreat from the perceived dangers of the world. However, from a historical perspective, we see in this book that people who actively engaged with the ideas, energy and people who crossed their path, ultimately learned and grew from it. It contributed to a greater dynamism and flourishing within societies in numerous ways.
Sometimes, global change is framed as an “us vs. them” scenario. And history can be tough. But Frankopoan does not present history that is “antiseptic”, or that is cleaned up from all the trouble-spots. He doesn’t shield the reader, but he invites a deeper and broader understanding. By telling the history of this huge area over time, he shows that through conflict as well as cooperation, there is forward momentum when it comes to interactions and this is an important message for any local congregation seeking to engage the changing world around them
All of this matters today, because, as Eduardo Galeano has written, “History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’” The historical notion of a “silk road” running from China to Europe is being revisited today with the “One Belt, One Road” initiative that China has embarked on. Our world has always been interconnected in important ways (as this book shows), and will be increasingly so into the future.
So, what will that mean for churches in areas that are linked through business, immigration, or culture with other parts of the world? Increasingly, these trends and themes are impacting more areas within the United States and by extension, more congregations as well.
One response to this is simply awareness of or interest in the world around us. This book is a resource for anyone interested in the long, interconnected history of the world. So, reading beyond the front pages of the domestic news-cycle is also important for Christians who live in increasingly multicultural areas.
When people have more awareness of history or culture or current events, it is a doorway into a conversations with someone new. It communicates care to a new neighbor, that someone would be interested in their cultural background. Effective evangelism will mean being open to cross-cultural interactions, including learning about more about the world that is outside of our usual comfort zone.
Frankopan reminds us that, “these lands have always been of pivotal importance in global history in one way or another, linking east and west, serving as a melting-pot where ideas, customs and languages have jostled with each other from antiquity to today.” The striking thing about this description is that it could now describe any number of urban and suburban areas in the United States.
According to Pew Research, Asia has now replaced Latin America as the biggest source of new immigrants to the United States. So, the melting pot continues to slowly churn on, even as demographic trends shift toward Asia. The new areas of cultural contact, are not only on the steppes of Central Asia or in the ports along the coast, but almost anywhere there is business or educational opportunity.
When it comes to local congregations seeking to engage the changing world around them, the melting pot of cultures is no longer just far away in an exotic land. It is here in our country. It is down the block in our neighborhood. And by God’s grace and provision, it may even be coming through the doors of our churches. The Silk Roads helps us have an orientation toward the great, wide world with all its peoples and cultures. This is a road that now leads right to our own door and so a new adventure is beginning.
D’Vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont, “Fact Tank: News in the Numbers,” www.pewresearch.org, March 31, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/.