Three-Leaf Clover

Michael Metzger

Missing two leaflets…
When you imagine the expansion of Christianity, where is the geographical center in AD400? …600? …800? Most of us imagine a straight line – from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean to Europe. But Christianity from its earliest days blossomed like a three-leaf clover, expanding first into Asia and Africa before Europe. The Asian and African clover leafs can help us connect Sunday to Monday in unimaginable ways.

Most Western Christians are admittedly illiterate when it comes to church history. Even the British intellectual Hilaire Belloc once proclaimed, “Europe is the Faith; and the Faith is Europe.” But Christianity from its earliest days was an intercontinental faith, “as firmly established in Asia and Africa as in Europe itself,” writes historian Philip Jenkins.1 Christians through the Middle Ages and the early modern period commonly depicted the three continents as lobes joined together in Jerusalem. It looked like a three-leaf clover – Asia to the east and Africa to the south. But these churches interacted with other faiths differently than Western Christians do today, writes Jenkins. “At their best, these meetings allowed the traditions not just to exchange ideas but to intertwine in productive and enriching ways, in an awe-inspiring chapter of Christian history that the Western churches have all but forgotten.” Specifically, the Asian church teaches us about collaboration while the Africans remind us about the importance of reframing the faith.

Asian Christianity included the Nestorian church, stretching from Syria to Pakistan and the borders of China. In the sixth and seventh centuries, as Nestorian Christians pressed eastward, they met Mahayana Buddhist missionaries. But instead of a collision of worldviews, Jenkins notes there was an “almost shocking degree of collaboration between the faiths.” Eastern churches presented their faith through the artistic and literary forms of the Asian culture. Facts mattered, but focusing on forms – such as studying their great books – helped Asian churches find where other faiths got parts of the story right. Asian Christians talked to other faiths and kept up neighborly relations with them, seeing others not as deadly rivals but as fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment.

Our Western approach tends to be more confrontational – we have the truth and they don’t. We focus more on facts and ideas than forms. “Idealism” is the fruit of the German Enlightenment of Kant, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – a movement of men who said that ideas – or the “mind” – are more important than physical reality, or forms. This attitude is the reason why so many Christian apologists see interaction with other faiths as a “cosmic struggle between worldviews – between the Christian worldview and the various secular and spiritual worldviews arrayed against it.”2 I’m all for truth and teaching “worldviews,” but Asian churches would scratch their heads at this kind of confrontational language.

To the south, the Egyptian Coptic Church has survived to this date, even with the onslaught of Muslim persecution that began in earnest around 1300. Jenkins notes that one key for survival “is how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community, and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed. The Egyptian church succeeded wonderfully in this regard” because it shaped institutions as well as individuals, Jenkins writes. They “put the Christian faith in the language of the ordinary people.”3

It’s easy to discount Asian and African churches since so many have disappeared. But before we get too high on our Western horse, remember that many of these churches lasted over a thousand years. Protestantism is only a few hundred years old. Churches preaching the “two chapter” gospel are the New Kids on the Block – about two hundred years old. “In short, Christians of European descent should learn that they are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been,” Jenkins concludes.4

It’s too early to tell how long Western Christianity will last, but calls for a “return to the basics” require a sound picture of historic Christianity. And if we’re serious about the three-leaf clover, we’ll also have to measure different outcomes than Western churches currently do. MIT professor Edgar Schein reminds us that whatever an institution measures ultimately becomes it’s culture.5 Regardless of what most Western churches publish in their mission statements, they mostly measure the ABCs – attendance, buildings, and cash. That’s necessary but insufficient. How about counting the number of collaborative projects we have going with leading cultural institutions, like Google or Apple or Stanford University? How about measuring whether we’re reframing the message so that influential leaders in media and the arts – directors like Steven Spielberg – take our definition of reality seriously and act upon it?

Albert Einstein cautioned that not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.6 The three-leaf clover changes how Western Christians imagine the faith and what we ought to be measuring. If we adopt it, we might even learn better ways to connect Sunday to Monday.

1 Philip Jenkins, “When Jesus met Buddha: Something remarkable happened when evangelists for two great religions crossed paths more than 1,000 years ago: they got along,” The Boston Globe, December 14, 2008.
2 Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1999), p. 17.
3 Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008), p. 35.
4 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, pp. 18-20.
5 Edgar Schein is a Professor of Management at MIT and the author of Organizational Culture and Leadership, Third Edition. New York: Wiley Publishers (2004).
6 Cited by Scott Thorpe, How to Think Like Einstein: Simple Ways to Break the Rules and Discover Your Hidden Genius (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2000), p. 3.


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  1. Hi! Thank you for this post. Actually, I’m not very familiar with this topic but after reading your post, it’s clear now! Keep up the good posts like this. Take care!

  2. Good post.

    I’ve always been concerned with the “confrontational” approach of Western Christianity and find that many people today (including non-Westerners) are very much “turned off” by this approach.

    I think Christianity would be more attractive to others if we spent more time trying to build bridges than constructing walls.

    This doesn’t mean that we don’t have to stop teaching what we believe to be true, but our “truth” should be used less like a hammer to bludgeon others with than a hammer to help build these bridges.

    Thanks for the insight.

  3. Enjoyed this post, Mike. Any good reading recommendations on the early Asian and African expressions of Christ-following?

  4. Hi Mike,

    I’ve enjoyed several of your entries and am interested in linking to your blog from our’s. I think you’ll also appreciate our blog as it has so many similarities to your’s! We talk a lot about a “Monday Church” and wholistic ministry. Grace and peace to you,

    Tim at DNA

  5. People compelled to angry confrontation may need to evaluate their own sense of security about their beliefs. But the philosophic apologists who are “salt & light” while arguing their faith can be both attractive and assertive.

  6. Hey Mike,

    I really like this post. Confrontational Christianity reflects more on Christian’s insecurities than anything else. There is no need for it if we really believe that what we have is the truth. Instead of taking that truth and hoarding it, we need to find common ground with people of other beliefs and look for the pieces of truth they might also have since ultimately “all truth is God’s truth” (not in the sense that all religions are true, but to not be shocked or uncomfortable when a truth in another religion lines up with a truth of Christianity-just shows that it is indeed the truth). Jesus was about unity and not just standing firm in your stance.

    ~PGS =^)

    PS–I too would be interested on further readings about early Asian and African expressions of Christianity.

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