by Edwin A Schwisow

By Eliza Griswold
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010
Book Review by Edwin A. Schwisow

I remember the night precisely—Thursday, December 20 at the Sports Palace (Palacio de Deportes)  in Mexico City. The Seventh-day Adventist Panamerican Youth Congress of 1984 had just opened, and Neal C. Wilson was addressing a near-capacity assembly of 18-35-year-olds in the cavernous echo chamber-of-a-building better known for hosting Olympic soccer in 1968. Now, 16 years later, the stadium still reverberated with national pride—as did the nearly unintelligible caroming words of Wilson, CEO of world Adventism, as he gave one of the strangest speeches I had ever heard from the lips of a General Conference official.

His was a message of disquiet and near-desperation—he said that, far from having carried the gospel to the very corners of the world, in fact most of the world's inhabitants had never heard of Jesus as Savior, let alone of Seventh-day Adventists as the end-time remnant. Really! I thought. What is he trying to do, depress us to the depths of despair? All my life I had heard that the “work was almost finished, and Jesus could come any day.” Now this!

Wilson told us youth that evening that to reach the billions yet unreached, we must devise a "Global Strategy" to reach particularly the heavily non-Christian sectors of the globe around the equator, known as the 10/40 window. It would be most difficult, he said, but it had to be done before Jesus could appear in the clouds of heaven.

The speech seemed to fall flat, though out of courtesy for the man and his office, we all stayed by until closing prayer. Would we ever hear about "Global Strategy" again? Indeed we would, and we have been hearing about it ever since (now known as Global Mission), though certainly not with the complex anthropologically underpinnings documented in the book “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam.”

Written by Harvard University Nieman Fellow Eliza Griswold, “Tenth Parallel” provides a postgraduate course in the deeper issues behind the reasons Christianity in general has fallen so woefully short within the window 10 degrees north of the equator in Africa and Asia. (The tenth parallel—the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator—is where Christianity and Islam often collide. More than half of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims live here, as do 60 percent of the world's 2 billion Christians. The conflict is shaping the future of each faith.)

This is an area of encroaching deserts and hot contest between tribal traditions defined loosely by Islam and Christianity. Here religion far from being a strict issue of the heart, is a life-and-death political choice, where a family or tribe that converts is seen as a traitor to everything good in its long-held traditions. But the biggest issue is the encroachment of deserts on arable farmland and the increasing unpredictability of seasonal rains. When every square centimeter of shrinking farmland is being contested to the death, and converts to an opposing faith are routinely marked for murder, "reaching the Muslims for Christ" becomes a task beyond the ken of normal human understanding and empathy.

These elements of the contest are not routinely discussed in church mission reports, but they must be recognized if we are to squarely face the reality of the task, as evangelical Christianity increasingly resorts to "Prosperity Gospel" in Africa, promising riches untold to those who come over to Christ's side, urged by preachers worth millions of dollars and being driven about in the best vehicles Rolls Royce can manufacture.

The task now seems far greater than it did 30 years ago in Mexico City. Islam and Christianity appear more antagonistic than ever, grappling primarily in a contest exacerbated by encroaching deserts and crop failures in formerly richly cultivated lands. It's easy within this context to blame the other side for the curse of God and call for its extermination.

That during the past 30 years the Adventist Church has recognized the companion need of enhancing its development-and-relief program is indeed a point in our favor. But even so, Global Mission appears to need far more funding and human resources than once imagined. It's a great challenge for which our traditional process of missionary endeavor seems inadequate. “Tenth Parallel” is a book researched and written by an on-site academic who traveled about extensively for seven years, interviewing Christians and Muslims alike, in-depth, seeking the keys to the area's future.

In 1984 the term "Global Warming" was meaningless. Now, it is impacting the equatorial regions with pivotal consequences. Griswold's book, available at reduced price in hardback, is a worthy investment in Sabbath-afternoon reading as the days lengthen in the northern hemisphere and we ponder anew why the Lord appears to delay His return and what ought to be done about it, from the human perspective.