The Nagel Institute: Promoting, Partnering, Provoking

The Nagel Institute works to link Christian scholars worldwide

by Phil de Haan ‘84
Spring 2014

The logo for the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity is an adinkra symbol from Ghana, one of many such Ghanaian symbols often used on fabric or pottery.

The one chosen by the Nagel Institute, the akoma ntoaso, looks a little like four shovels linked by a circle, but is in fact symbolic of linked hearts.

It represents understanding, agreement, trust and partnership and thus, said Nagel Institute director Joel Carpenter, “is a most fitting emblem for an institute which aims to link Christian scholars worldwide.”

Although the elements of the akoma ntoaso are not actually shovels, that metaphor is also apropos for the Nagel Institute, said Carpenter. For eight years now, the institute has been doing yeoman’s work with partners around the globe as it tries to promote a deeper understanding of world Christianity, to partner with Christian scholars and study centers, and to provoke a reorientation of Christian thought in the North Atlantic.

“Our three P’s,” Carpenter said with a low chuckle. “They have been with us since the beginning and they guide us still.”

Indeed when the Nagel’s initial, endowing benefactors, Calvin alumni Doug and Lois Nagel, created their eponymous institute, they had been supporters of front-line Christian missions for many years, and they understood the strategic needs of rising Christian movements in the global South and East.

The Nagels “recognized that if the Gospel is going to go deep and be transformative in the world’s varied cultures, it needs to be applied to all realms of life, and this kind of discipleship and witness takes much thought,” recalls Carpenter, who as Calvin’s then-provost was involved in the beginning conversations. “There is an intellectual and cultural mission to engage, worldwide, and by their endowing gift, Doug and Lois acknowledged and supported this strategic mission.”

Expanding interest in the growth of Christianity

In 2006, Carpenter said there was a growing interest in where and how Christianity was growing outside of North America, particularly in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific region. There also was a sense that European and North American Christianity were about to be significantly shaped by followers of the faith who were leaving their homelands for cities on the two continents.

Neither one of those things has changed eight years later. In fact, both trends continue to accelerate.

A 2011 report, called Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population, from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that there were 2.18 billion Christians in the world from a global population at the time of almost 7 billion people.

But, they wrote, “Christians are also geographically widespread, so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.”

That was a big change from a century prior when most of the world’s Christians lived in Europe.

A global faith

“Christianity,” the Pew report added, “has grown enormously in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, where there were relatively few Christians at the beginning of the 20th century. The share of the population that is Christian in sub-Saharan Africa climbed from nine percent in 1910 to 63 percent in 2010, while in the Asia-Pacific region it rose from three percent to seven percent. Christianity today, unlike a century ago, is truly a global faith.”

Tracking that shift, and the ways in which Christianity in Europe and North America is changing because of immigration patterns, has been the province of the Nagel Institute via a variety of research, publishing and faculty development projects.

Among the highlights in just the past few years:

  • In May 2013, the Nagel Institute received funding and authorization from the John Templeton Foundation and the Issachar Fund Initiative to assess the needs and opportunities for funding projects and programs in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Carpenter and Calvin political science professor Kevin den Dulk co-edited Religion, Society and the Rule of Law: Christianity in Chinese Public Life, essays that resulted from Nagel’s third faculty development seminar, “Religion, Society, and the Rule of Law,” in China in 2011.
  • A trio of books on primal religions was published as a result of a Nagel-funded, four-year collaborative research project coordinated by the Akrofi-Christaller Institute in Ghana.
  • The Values and Virtues Project concluded three years of intensive programmatic work with Chinese philosophers, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, in partnership with the Society of Christian Philosophers.
  • A new book series was begun with Baker Academic called Turning South: New Directions in Christian Scholarship, with Nick Wolterstorff’s Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South published in November 2013 and titles to come from literary scholar Susan van Zanten and historian Mark Noll.
  • A seminar called “Evangelicals and Social Change in Brazil” was held in summer 2013 in Brazil that looked at the interplay of faith and public life in that country with visits to Rio de Janeiro (focusing on poverty and violence), Brasilia (focusing on religion and politics) and Manaus (focusing on environmental stewardship).

Partnering is paramount

“The work we do, we do with other people,” said Carpenter. “That’s our basic MO; we partner. We don’t have a big footprint here. That’s deliberate.”

But Carpenter is quick to add that the Nagel’s home base at Calvin College is critical to the institute’s ability to find partners around the globe.

“Calvin has a strong record of encouraging and supporting scholarship, and it is one of the leading institutions among North American Christian colleges and universities for promoting rigorous inquiry from Christian perspectives,” he said. “And Calvin’s faculty has a growing investment in studies pertaining to Christianity in the global South and East.”

On such faculty member is art professor Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk, who twice has gone on Nagel-sponsored trips with fellow artists from Christian colleges in North America, the first to Indonesia and the most recent in the summer of 2013 on the R5 trip to South Africa (the R5 moniker represents the five critical issues that South African artists wrestle with: remembrance, resistance, reconciliation, representation and re-visioning).

A native of Canada and a 1983 Calvin graduate, Van Reeuwyk said the first experience in Indonesia changed her life. When offered a chance to go to South Africa, she did not hesitate.

“It is a country that has been always close to my heart,” she said. “My parents chose to immigrate to Canada, but South Africa was certainly an option at the time. I’ve closely followed the events over the past 30 years, incorporated elements of South African history and literature in courses that I taught, and prayed for a country devastated by apartheid and finally moving into democracy.”

For two weeks VanReeuwyk and 10 fellow North American artists journeyed throughout South Africa alongside 10 artists from the African continent. They examined how South African artists have engaged the five R’s, how they have created art in response to them, and they considered how the South African artistic experience might reorient the approach of North American artists.

Now all of the artists are working on pieces for an exhibition titled “Shadows and Light” that will debut at Xavier University in New Orleans in September 2014 and thereafter will travel the country, including appearances in North America and Africa.

VanReeuwyk is partnering with two female artists from Ghana and South Africa on a three-part piece for the upcoming exhibition. “It is based on the experience of the townships we visited,” she said. “Such utter poverty and yet the arts and faith exist and flourish. Working through these images of the places we visited and the experiences we had with the people confirmed for me the absolute importance of the arts in all aspects of life and living.”

VanReeuwyk recalled a visit to the Regina Mundi, a Catholic parish in Soweto close to where Nelson Mandela lived.

“We were greeted with warm and genuine welcomes and immediately swept into the environment of music,” she recalled. “A brightly colored stained-glass window stretched along one side of the large church depicting important moments in the movement, including images of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. The experience was stunning.”

Carpenter said those moments are embedded in the Nagel Institute’s DNA. “One of our advisers, when we began dreaming about the Nagel eight years ago, was the late Kwame Bediako [a theologian from Ghana],” he said. “I remember he was concerned about all of the study centers in the West. Their relationship to the global South, he thought, was often exploitive. So he challenged us to help Christian institutions grow and thrive elsewhere, to look outward.

“He told me: ‘We don’t want to be part of the next curio collection.’ That was good advice, and it’s enabled us to be involved since the start in ever so much more.”

Phil de Haan is Calvin’s senior public relations specialist.