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Past, Present, Future

Adam H Becker, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Rise of Assyrian Nationalism.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. xviii + 432 pp.ISBN 978-0226145310.$30.56 (Paperback).

Philip O Hopkins

Adam H Becker, professor of religious studies and classics at New York University, writes, American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Rise of Assyrian Nationalism, a work that connects American evangelical missionary involvement to Assyrian nationalism in Iran during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Becker believes that the evangelical promotion of a Protestant understanding of Christianity, while not successful in converting East Syrians to Protestant Christianity, led East Syrians of the Urmia and Hakkari areas to develop an ideology that formulated a unifying nationalism with secular overtones. It was the Protestant missionary concept of reform, Becker argues, that provided the East Syrians the foundation for a modernistic distinctiveness and identity that nationalists traced to the ancient Assyrians.

Reform indicates a purer form of an institution or practice that was either lost or in need of renewal. With American Protestant missions in Iran to the East Syrians, whose Christianity was “Nestorian,” it meant converting or returning them to the “authentic” Christian faith. At first glance, the relationship between the American Protestant missionary model of reform and Assyrian nationalism among the peoples of Urmia and Hakkari seems stretched, but Becker argues that this all began with the introduction of print media into the culture. As the printing press had significant impact on the transformation of thought in the Western world, Becker believes mass duplication made an important contribution to East Syrian thinking. While printing religious tracts, papers, and books (including Bibles) rapidly and in large quantities gave missionaries an additional avenue to share their beliefs, it also inadvertently conveyed an epistemology built upon Enlightenment principles, one different from the Christianity of the East Syrians; one that centered on the individual over the ritual (pp. 97-98).

Couched within a Protestant understanding of reform based on an epistemological system from the Enlightenment, East Syrians developed a secular understanding of society and modernistic concepts such as individualism, liberty, and privatization, and transferred them to a nationalism associated with ancient Assyria even though a direct ancestral line from East Syrians to Assyrians is debated historically. Assyrian nationalism, Becker explains, became a type of soteriology; one that answered questions about “death, salvation, community, and tradition” in a manner that unified different groups of people (p. 231). This is evidenced further when several years later, diverse missions societies increased, and missionaries became theologically liberal, promoting a social gospel over an evangelical message. The social gospel encouraged a focus on the betterment of life; the multiplicity of missions organizations created fragmentation. Combined, they boosted East Syrian nationalistic tendencies brought about from the previous generation and created a flourishing environment for nationalists to continue to outline their affiliation with the Assyria of old (p. 297).

While Revival and Awakeningis extensive and documented thoroughly, there are a couple matters of clarification and explanation that would aid the overall thesis; Becker’s description of Calvinism and Reformed theology in the missionaries’ influence of the development of nationalism outside Iran, for instance. While Calvinistic theology rejects the idea of good actions meriting salvation, thus resulting in a privatization or internalization of religion (p. 19) whereby only “God knows the heart” (p. 182), the corollary rarely is mentioned – good works of a “true believer” are done not from duty, but from delight or thankfulness – the motives of many missionaries. The impact of American evangelical missionaries on nationalism with “tribes” and “nations” in other parts of the world is not mentioned. While not directly related to the thesis, adding a section that summarizes Western Christian missions of the period could help demonstrate similarities and/or “uniquenesses” in the rise of Assyrian nationalism among the East Syrians of Iran and place it within the greater context of nationalism in developing countries.

Even with these concerns, which are minor, Becker’s work is well written and researched. Few Western scholars have the necessary grasp of the needed languages to research this topic. Aside from the obvious contributions the study makes to history, missiology, and academia in general, the work serves as a reminder that actions have unintended consequences. Becker, perhaps “unintentionally,” presents a plausible reason for opposition to Western Christian missionary involvement in Iran by the current Iranian government. Not only do current evangelical missionaries advocate a change of religion from Islam to Christianity and encourage intentional gospel sharing with others, Becker indicates that the ideology of American evangelical Protestant missionaries, purposely or not, can be used to promote a nationalism that conflicts with the current Islamic Republic’s version; one distinct from the political Shi’ism that Iran’s current leader AyatollahAli Khamenei advances.