The Gospel & Globalisation

March 01, 2010

The Gospel & Globalisation

A critical question for Christians to ask if they want to live faithfully in the world is, ‘What time is it?’ Where are we at in our culture’s story? What are the most powerful dynamics and forces that are shaping our world today? Perhaps three words begin to answer these questions—at least for those of us living in the West: globalization postmodernity, and consumerism.

Numerous volumes have appeared on globalization since the middle of the 1990s which indicates that globalization has become one of the key terms used in an attempt to understand the spirit of our times. Robert Schreiter suggests that ‘globalization, for better or for worse, is the single most adequate way of describing the context in which we work today’.[1] If Christians want to live faithfully in this time, being instruments of the shalom and justice of the kingdom of God, they must take time to gain insight into this significant phenomenon.

The Gospel as Starting Point

Every analysis of globalization depends on certain clues as decisive for seeking understanding. Christians have a commitment to the good news announced by Jesus Christ as the clue for understanding our world. We recognise that many in our secular world will find this odd and simply dismiss out of hand the whole notion of seeing any connection between religion and the various processes of globalization. However, if what Jesus announced two millennia ago is true—and his claims can, of course, be rejected on the basis of another, more decisive clue—then we have no option other than to start with this message as the clue to seeing the world aright.

Jesus made the astounding announcement that God was acting decisively and climactically through him for the renewal of all of human life and of the whole creation. This proclamation came as part of a long story narrated in the Old Testament, the story of a God who brings into existence the whole creation, who governs universal history and rules all nations, and who is guiding the history of all nations to its climactic goal. This story of his mighty acts in history to restore the creation from the evil and misery that comes from human rebellion is, in the language of 19th century historiography, a universal history, or in the more recent language of postmodernity, a metanarrative (by these terms we mean something like a true story about the meaning of the world and history as a whole). Jesus claimed that in him this story had found its centre and its meaning. God’s promised restoration, the telos of universal history is revealed and accomplished in his person and work.

If this message is true, then its significance bursts beyond that private sphere called ‘religion’, something we value for our worship and personal ethics. Rather than being an entertaining religious tale it becomes a ‘secular announcement’ or ‘public truth’ for all people in all times.[2] It is concerned with the whole human situation and not only some area called ‘religion.’ The message of Christ is a claim that offers a comprehensive understanding of the world and of history. Jesus’ invitation to repent and believe is nothing less than a summons to believe his remarkable claims and to inhabit the world of the Biblical narrative as the true story of the world. It is an appeal to take the person and work of Jesus Christ as the fundamental clue for the interpretation of the rest of the world.

Starting with the gospel for our interpretation of the world, including our interpretation of the realities of globalization, raises important questions which coalesce around three themes:

  1. How is this dynamic of globalization rooted in God’s intent and design for creation and for history? Is the historical unfolding of culture across territorial boundaries in the processes of globalization part of God’s original plan for creation?
  2. How has globalization been corrupted by human rebellion? How has cultural development across territorial boundaries been twisted by idolatry—perhaps of a technological or economic type?
  3. In light of the hope we have in the promised final restoration that is already present, are the processes of globalization as they exist today open to healing and renewal?

To establish a framework for globalization from the standpoint of the gospel would mean approaching the topic with those kinds of questions.

But, of course, we cannot remain at a general ‘theological’ level. We must be able to connect these basic affirmations to a plausible understanding of contemporary globalization that accounts for the various realities of our global world and that engages the diverse theories of globalization. We need to seek a biblically-directed account of historical development that discerns God’s original creational purpose for the unfolding of various cultural institutions and societal forms. Globalization can be understood as the continuing development of cultures in such a way that they cross territorial boundaries and connect various peoples into an interrelated whole. Hence, globalization could be the source of mutual enrichment for the common good, taking place through increasing global interdependence. However, the beneficial potential of global interconnectedness has more often not been realised. Poverty and environmental damage seem to follow in the wake of the global market. And so we must probe the question of what is hindering the common good. What are the powers and structures that thwart the favourable possibilities of enriching global interdependence? Rather than finding ourselves always stuck in the ruts of celebration and crisis, [we] wish to move in the direction of ‘globalization for the good’.[3]

Religion—A Missing Piece in Globalization Studies

In the exploding literature on this topic, authors use the word ‘globalization’ in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most common approach is to reduce globalization to economics. Globalization then refers to a coalescence of political, technological, and economic factors that are now producing a global market. This, it is argued, is made possible by relaxed trade barriers, developments in information and communication technology, the ease of air travel, the rise of multinational and transnational corporations and, perhaps especially, global financial capital. It is the spread of global capitalism around the world.

Rebecca Todd Peters offers a typology of four competing theories that she believes currently dominates globalization discourse.[4] The first she terms ‘neoliberal’, a theory that refers to an integrated global economy which promotes economic growth and increased trade, and is best facilitated by free markets and economic competition. The second she labels ‘social development’, an approach indebted to John Keynes that is critical of the invisible hand of the market in the first theory and so supports governmental intervention. This second group is as committed as the first to the economic opportunities of capitalism, looking to it to produce global economic development and growth. These first two theories are basically uncritical of the global spread of capitalism and the emergence of a global market. The other two theories that Peters describes bring strong criticisms to the table. The third theory, which Peters calls ‘localization’or ‘earthiest’, is primarily concerned with earth justice. It is concerned with creating shalom amongst people, the land on which they live, and the creatures with which they live. Ecological and environmental justices are the uppermost concerns. The fourth theory, labelled ‘neocolonial’or ‘postcolonial’, addresses the powers of globalization that are destroying life for the dispossessed and marginalised peoples of the world. This approach is more concerned with discovering the political power necessary to challenge current dynamics in globalization. Both ‘localization’ and ‘postcolonial’ theories are resistance movements against the devastating results of a global economy, such as environmental destruction, growing poverty, unjust and oppressive business practices, the displacement of peoples, cultural imperialism, and more.

Peters’s typology is helpful for mapping out many of the voices analysing globalization today. Yet it primarily focuses on globalization as an economic dynamic. The fact that the preponderance of literature on globalization points to the global spread of capitalistic economic processes alerts us to two very important features of globalization. In the first place, the block of Western capitalist nations—led especially by the United States—is a powerful player in the global process (perhaps the most powerful player). Of course, they are not the only players. Islam and China, for example, are major forces. Second, the economic sphere has come to play an exaggerated role in western culture. The economic vision of Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith has come to full-flower in Western culture in the 20th century and is now a major force in globalization.

Many other scholars have pushed our understanding of globalization beyond the economic sphere. In their book Global Transformations, David Held and his co-authors open up the multi-dimensional nature of globalization. They successively treat political globalization, military globalization, trade globalization, financial globalization, business globalization, global migration, cultural globalization, and environmental globalization.[5]

Studies of this more inclusive variety bring us to two further conclusions. On the one hand, globalization is a multi-faceted and interlocking phenomenon that involves more than economics. If globalization involves cultural development and interdependence beyond territorial boundaries, then it will touch every area of human communal life including the social, the political, the economic, the cultural, the technological, the judicial, the aesthetic, and the ethical. On the other hand, if economics has acquired inflated significance, then this will have social and cultural implications. Education, the arts, and social relationships, for example, will be shaped by the globalization process as it is led by economics.

Nevertheless, what is missing from almost all of the available literature on globalization is a detailed analysis of the powerful role of religion. Stackhouse summarises: ‘The neglect of religion as an ordering, uniting and dividing factor in a number of influential interpretations of globalization is a major cause of misunderstanding and a studied blindness regarding what is going on in the world’.[6]

There is something absurd in the fact that at a time when religions are playing such a major role in global affairs, both for good and for bad, their role remains unrecognised by secular scholarship. Further, since Christianity has played such a dominant role in shaping the West and setting into motion various dynamics that shape globalization today, to ignore the Christian roots and continuing influence of Christianity is to fundamentally misunderstand globalization. Yet such is the prejudice and blindness of secular scholarship today on the topic of globalization.

The Religious Core of Western Culture?

Stackhouse correctly believes that religious faith ‘shapes the public ethos of civilizations’.[7] He defines faith ‘as confidence in a comprehensive worldview ... that is accepted as binding because it is held to be, in itself, basically true and just’. This religious faith or worldview ‘provides a framework for interpreting the realities of life in the world, it guides the basic beliefs and behaviors of persons and it empowers believers to seek to transform the world in accordance with a normative ethic of what should be’.[8] When a ‘religion becomes widely shared, it shapes an ethos that gives identity to a particular culture and tends to promote a social ethic that fosters distinctive public institutions. It molds civilizations’.[9]

This religious faith is not one more aspect of human culture among others. It is a formative and unifying power underlying the various social, political, cultural, economic, technological, and ethical dynamics of a culture. As John Hutchison says, ‘religion is not one aspect or department of life beside the others, as modern secular thought likes to believe; it consists rather in the orientation of all human life to the absolute’.[10] To overlook the role of religion in globalization is a major omission! With this understanding of religion, Stackhouse is in company with a number of theologians,[11] worldview scholars,[12] and missiologists[13] who see religion as the formative core and directing centre of society.  

Alongside the Christian story, two of the most potent religious forces in globalization today are Islam and the religious commitments shaping Western culture. It is precisely at this point that we differ from the valuable work of Stackhouse. He believes that the sociocultural forces originating in the West most commonly associated with globalization ‘were formed in societies fundamentally stamped by Christian theological ethics’. Thus, his project is to identify and recover the Christian roots of globalization in his public theology as resources to shape globalization in a more just way.

It is indeed true that the West and thus its formative role in globalization have been deeply shaped by the Christian interpretation of history. Moreover, it is also the case that recovering that story will offer important resources to shape globalization in a more equitable way. The problem is that there is another significant and long-term religious formative power at work in the West—the religion of secular humanism. Indeed, we would argue, it is the more powerful.[14]

The secular humanism of the early 21st century has taken a liberal, capitalistic form in which economics plays a dominant, globalizing role. Indeed, one might even speak of the totalitarian influence of economics in the Western story. Thus one will expect, not only to see the distorting effects of economic idolatry on the various spheres of life in the processes of globalization, but also reactions both from within and from without against the deformity it produces. If this is true it will be important to observe the distortions secular humanism has undergone in its current capitalistic form as one of the powerful dynamics at work in globalizing processes today.

Creatures from a small place—a hopeful transformation of globalisation

The distorting effects of Western economic idolatry are not hard to see. In the sphere of travel and tourism, for example, there is obvious unevenness. Tourists can reap the benefits of the ‘global experience’ offered by globalisation, enjoying ready access to all the world’s ‘small places’. Whose Facebook news feed has not been overwhelmed by pictures of friends on vacation in Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic? Deals on all-inclusive, beachfront vacations in the Caribbean spreading through their Internet networks. Pictures featuring smooth white beaches separated from a bright blue sky by a clean line of ocean water multiplying endlessly. And these pictures can tug at very deep desires within us: to escape the stress and busyness of my work, to be pampered by people to whom I owe nothing, and to indulge in unusual sensuous experiences.

But the perspective of the native population is often far different. Jamaica Kincaid’s acerbic essay on tourism in Antigua, ‘A Small Place’, opens by evoking the excitement of a North American tourist at a Caribbean resort:

That water—have you seen anything like it? Far out, to the horizon, the colour of the water is navy-blue; nearer, the water is the colour of the North American sky … Oh what beauty! … [Y]ou have never seen anything like this. You are so excited. You breathe shallow. You breathe deep

But Kincaid’s insider perspective stands in striking contrast with this: ‘since you are on your holiday, since you are a tourist, the thought of what it might be like for someone who had to live day in, day out in a place that suffers constantly from drought, and so has to watch carefully every drop of fresh water used … must never cross your mind’. Kincaid’s book is balanced by a strong internal critique of Antiguan society, but for Christians in the West, her blistering critique of privileged tourism as an integral part of globalization challenges us to become sensitive and open to voices from small places.

And yet a Christian response to globalization may not simply come from either the celebration or the crisis camps. For Christians live as part of their culture and this global world as prophetic voices, as critical participants. The prophets of the Old Testament not only denounced the idolatry of Israel and the nations they also shaped a new imagination for how one might live faithfully in a world dominated by idolatry. Likewise, the church does not stand outside of its world, but within it as a cultural player, seeking to shape it in a more just and sustainable way. The critical participant finds it necessary to distinguish between dynamics of globalization which may be liberating and enriching and ones that may be oppressive and unjust. We must be concerned not only to join the Jamaica Kincaids in decrying the present distortions of globalization that arise from economic idolatry. We must also cultivate an alternative, more hopeful imagination as we pursue a transformed globalization shaped by good stewardship, justice, and equity.

The stories of refugee-ed peoples in Canada that Mary Jo Leddy records in her book At the Border Called Hope: Where Refugees are Neighbours provide a compelling example of this. Taken as a whole, the stories that Leddy has recorded can feel heavy—the numerous tales of unjust global processes, bludgeoning national structures, and horrific results for refugee-ed people in Canada begin to compound. People looking for refuge in Canada have had a difficult, and often impossible, time communicating their experiences to civil servants at all levels of government (let alone ensuring their claims are considered thoroughly and with timeliness). Though they reside in a relatively powerful nation, their voice still comes from the ‘small place’ of their citizenshiplessness. They may be able to find expensive fruit in the supermarket that comes from their home countries, but their own value as civic participants is not yet acknowledged.

Yet the heaviness of Leddy’s refugee stories does not stick in our throats when the stories are savoured, rather than consumed, gulped in one sitting.3 What struck me as most surprising and most hopeful in the stories Leddy tells is the way in which her faith perspective results in a quality of hope that might not seem a natural outcome of the circumstances. While her readers are called to anger and celebration, they are more importantly called to sit at the border of hope, listening, bearing witness to what they hear, and advocating for those who come from small places. This, more than any other response, requires significant selflessness and acknowledgement of the interdependent world we live in.

Being displaced has a way of making us dependent on or even aware of our dependency on others. Leddy’s book tells story after story of refugee-ed people who realised their own vulnerability and were then moved to act on behalf of others. This, I think, is one of the insights refugee stories gives us into globalization: that the world is a small place, deeply interconnected in a way that makes all people vulnerable. In such a world, we are all potential refugees. Taking on this view requires an about-face for jet-setters who think we can consume anything for a price. It may even call us to live out of that vulnerability rather than try to consolidate power at any number of levels—personally, ecclesiastically, nationally, globally.

Globalization produces the ‘small world’ of Jamaica Kincaid who is virulently angry at what is happening in Antigua, the island where foreigners splash about in the water and natives carefully conserve their drinking water. Alongside this, it produces the ‘small world’ that tourists inhabit, where you can speak with someone in church one Sunday and the next week see them in the Caribbean on Facebook. But globalization, understood rightly, has the potential to create a third ‘small world’, to which Leddy’s stories point us. Being part of a globalized world can foster in us a sense of the interconnections in God’s one, small world. It can give us a sense of both our dependency on others and also our status as creatures. What we learn from refugee stories is that the world is a small place, but not because it is so easy to get from one place to the next and not because we often meet people who know people we know halfway across the world. Rather, the world is a small place because it is one broken, fragile creation, dependent on God’s daily provision and interdependent in the way he created it to be.

Imagine the generative potential for globalization if Christians in first world countries were to begin thinking of themselves as creatures again—as creatures and not only consumers, as creatures and not only tourists—not primarily as people with the ability to visit ‘small places’ for pleasure but as people from the small place which is God’s good creation.


[1] Robert Schreiter, “Major Currents of Our Times: What They Mean for Preaching the Gospel”, in Catholic News Service, 31, 11 (16 August 2001). It can be found on-line: (accessed 7 May 2009).

[2] The language of ‘secular announcement’ and ‘public truth’ is that of Lesslie Newbigin who used these terms to make clear the universal validity of the announcement of the gospel. Cf. The Finality of Christ (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1969), 48; Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

[3] Cf. Peter Heslam (ed.), Globalization and the Good (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[4] Rebecca Todd Peters, In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004); “The Future of Globalization: Seeking Pathways of Transformation,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 24, 1 (2004), 105-133.  See Max Stackhouse’s critique of Todd Peters which he believes is simplistic because she misses religion as a causative factor. (God and Globalization. Volume 4: Globalization and Grace [New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2007], 37)

[5] David Held, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt, and Jonathan Perraton, Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[6] Max Stackhouse, Volume 4: Globalization and Grace, 57.

[7] Stackhouse, Volume 4: Globalization and Grace, 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 8.

[10] John A. Hutchison, Faith, Reason, and Existence (New York:  1956), 210.

[11] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology III (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963), 100-113; Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 1-9;  Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization. Second Part: Specific Problems (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1948), 129-133; Langdon Gilkey, Society and the Sacred (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Co., 1981). Cf. Brian J. Walsh, Langdon Gilkey: Theologian for a Culture in Decline (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), 71-126.

[12] Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 15-39; Brian J. Walsh, Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time (Bristol, UK: The Regius Press, 1992), 13-50; Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 67-71; James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 122-133; David Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 267-274; James Olthius, “On Worldviews,” Christian Scholar’s Review, XIV, 2 (1985), 153-164; Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1959), 37-45.

[13] J. H. Bavinck, The Impact of Christianity on the Non-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 45-62; An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1960), 169-190; cf. Paul J. Visser, Heart for the Gospel, Heart for the World: The Life and Thought of a Reformed Pioneer Missiologist Johan Herman Bavinck [1895-1964] (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 136-183, 282-293; Harvie M. Conn, “Conversion and Culture,” in  John R. W. Stott and Robert Coote (eds.), Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 147-172; Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 1-20; cf. Michael W. Goheen, “As the Father Has Sent Me, I am Sending You”: J. E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology (Zoetermeer, NL: Boekencentrum, 2000), 341-344.

[14] We are thus in agreement with Jonathan Chaplin’s verdict on Volumes 1-3 of God and Globalization. Political Theology 5, 4 (October 2004), 499-500.

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