The lightening speed with which the global economic crisis has spread from one financial capital to another – heedless of national borders – seems to confirm one of the basic tenets of globalization: The world is flat.
Writer Thomas Friedman made that proposition famous in his influential book of the same name (The World Is Flat: Expanded Edition Thomas L. Friedman). The basic idea: Interconnected technology, trade, communication and mobility have tied us all together so tightly that national and cultural barriers are becoming increasingly porous, even irrelevant.
Not so fast.
In his new book, The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization's Rough Landscape, Michigan State professor Harm de Blij argues that location still matters – a lot.
“Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional differences, but it remains a world of staggering situational differences,” De Blij writes. “From the uneven distribution of natural resources to the unequal availability of opportunity, place remains a powerful arbitrator. Many hundreds of millions of farmers in river basins of Asia and Africa live their lives much as their distant ancestors did, still remote from the forces of globalization ….
“In their lifetimes, this vast majority will have worn the garb, spoken the language, professed the faith, shared the health conditions, absorbed the education, acquired the attitudes, and inherited the legacy that constitutes the power of place: the accumulated geography whose formative imprint still dominates the planet.”
True, “global playing fields” are leveling for many, de Blij acknowledges. But assuming a homogenized, borderless, “flat” world is now the rule just because you can find identical high-rises, malls and office parks “from Minneapolis to Mumbai” is a mistake. The urban economic boom of China and high-tech industries of India get plenty of publicity, for example. But out in the rural vastness of both those Asian giants, countless millions continue to struggle for existence – seemingly a universe away from the growth centers of their own nations.
Despite modern mobility and massive migrations, fewer than 3 percent of us are “mobals” who live in a country where we were not born. An even smaller minority make up the “globals” who have access to all the advantages of modern technology and travel. The rest are “locals” – still tied, for better or worse, to the places and cultures that spawned us.
Christians, then, still must traverse many literal or figurative back roads, dirt tracks, mountains and valleys to bring the Gospel to every people – even in the chaotic maelstrom of megacities. There is no “flat” superhighway to world evangelization.
“In our current rush to embrace the rewards of global ‘flattening,’ it is worth reminding ourselves that point of entry continues to matter when it comes to opportunities in reach,” de Blij cautions.
For transmitting the love of Christ to all peoples, our key points of entry remain language, culture and place. That means continuing to mobilize churches, missionaries and local believers to take the Gospel – personally – to every part of the globe’s “rough landscape.”