His first stunning revelation came in the classroom, where he was teaching about the early church. "I still remember the force with which one day the realization struck me that I, while happily pontificating on that patchwork quilt of diverse fragments that constitutes second-century Christian literature, was actually living in a second-century church," he explains. "Why did I not stop pontificating and observe what was going on?"And it's not just about individual conversion,
It was a move from "talking about texts" to "talking about the community that formed the texts." The epiphany transformed his understanding of both the church in Sierra Leone and the second-century church he had studied in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. "As I looked at the surviving literature of the early second century, I could see all the examples of that literature around me," Walls says. "You read the first letter of Clement, and, yes, I'd hear sermons like that, and just as long. You read Ignatius, and though I had not actually seen anybody going to martyrdom, you saw the same sort of intensity."
What he met in Sierra Leone was not, Walls realized, a derivative or younger version of the European church, but "a symbiosis, very carefully fused." Something was occurring that paralleled the patristic period, when a Jewish gospel got translated into Greco-Roman culture. For Walls, this brought a "very definite movement from depression to hope" and began a lifetime love affair with Africa.
Evangelicals believe in the conversion of individuals, but Walls began to see that conversion refers also to nations and communities. Did not the Great Commission command the discipling of the nations? "Conversion to Christ does not isolate the convert from his or her community," Walls says. "It begins the conversion of that community. … [D]iscipling is a long process—it takes generations. Christian proclamation is for the children and grandchildren of the people who hear it."And trying to find the common thread that runs through the vast tapestry of Christianity over time and space. A contrast with Philip Jenkins is also noted,
Walls began to think that this kind of Christian conversion is necessary in every place and time, and that Christian history is the story of how faith moves from one culture to another, translating and retranslating the gospel along the way.
While some scholars such as Philip Jenkins emphasize a shift of power from Western churches to those south of the equator, Walls sees instead a new polycentrism: the riches of a hundred places learning from each other. That is why he has delighted in the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, which he founded at the University of Edinburgh. Students come from all over the world to share what they are learning and to study together. As Kwame Bediako, former director of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, puts it, "The gospel that was in principle universal has now become in reality universal."[Incidentally, the author of the article met Dr. Walls at the Overseas Mission Center in New Haven, CT, where I was headed in January, when life interrupted.]