Christianity Comes Full Circle
Book Review "The Next Christendom" by Philip Jenkins
The center of Christendom as we know it, has been synonymous with that of the “European Christian” civilization for the past five centuries or so: “Europe is the Faith” (Hilaire Belloc). Philip Jenkins sets out to supply the “Next Christendom” with a pair of spiritual spectacles that will serve to refocus and envision the revolutionary changes that have taken place in recent decades. The Christian complexion has undergone a sharp shift southward: from an overwhelming majority of White nations identified as the global North to the African, Asian, and Latin American communities in the Southern Hemisphere (pp. 1-2). The author addresses the myopic or tunnel vision of contemporary Christian commentators who failed to pay serious attention to the fact that the shifts in the center of gravity and the transformation of trends have created a new Christianity that has entered the worldwide stage to play its crucial role. The author quotes Mbiti’s telling comment, “It is utterly scandalous for so many Christian scholars in [the] old Christendom to know so much about heretical movements in the second and third centuries, when so few of them know anything about Christian movements in the areas of the younger churches” (p. 4). In spite of the fact that the old Christendom remains largely oblivious to the epoch-making changes taking place in the Dark Continent, the once celebrated phrase of Belloc may soon have to boast, “Africa is the Faith” (p. 75).
Seeing The Southern Churches Thru Western Eyes
Jenkins argues that the spiritual blinders must come off in order for western eyes to ‘look south.’ In terms of publishing Third World topics like the current and staggering church growth movements or the recognition of important contributions made by its leaders in the past century, the Southern churches remain virtual invisible to Northern eyes. In North America, for example, most writers neglect the present-day realities in the Third World by projecting their biases on a familiar future of an imagined American present. Jenkins answers the crucial question, “What does Western civilization mean when what were once its crucial religious aspects are now primarily upheld outside the ‘West?’” An enthusiastic observer of Asian missions commented, “Europe is in the times of Jesus with establishment protests against an aging religious institution tottering under the weight of its wealth, property and privileges. Asia is in the times of Paul, planting a convert church in virgin soil” (p. 69).
In the global South, bumper crops of newer churches have arisen preaching a “deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism and Puritanism” (p. 8) that is reminiscent of ‘how the West was won’ in its bygone days. The author cites the stark comparison between the imminent demise of American Christianity whose sanctuaries are thinly sprinkled with white-haired congregants to a congregation in Seoul or Nairobi where Christianity is very much alive and whose main concern is “building a worship facility big enough for the 10,000 or 20,000 members” amassed over the years (these converts are mostly made up of teens and young adults, very few with white hair).
Seeing History Doing A Second Act Just Like Europe
As the spread of Christianity paralleled the imperial expansion, great triumphs arose through the structures created by colonial authorities. According to Jenkins, long after the empires dismantled their rule, a passionate loyalty stayed its course among the indigenous peoples. The author cites an uncanny parallel in Europe’s successful spread of Christianity after the collapse of the Roman Empire. To quote Woodward in regard to the view of some church historians in that they “see history doing a second act: just as Europe’s northern tribes turned to the church after the decay of the Roman Empire, so Africans are embracing Christianity in the face of the massive political, social and economic chaos” (p. 59).
Although the Roman Catholic Church hails as the single largest religious presence in Africa and Latin America, the Pentecostal movement among the Protestant Churches has shown the most significant growth in recent decades. Due to the traditional animistic beliefs among the southern churches, the newer independents tend toward an emphasis on healing and visionary experience. The churches in the global North see these new movements in peril of bordering their ancestral cultic practices. Nevertheless, due to a severe shortage of priests across the global South, the Catholic Church has indirectly catered to the popular taste by joining the ‘signs and wonders bandwagon’ in order to keep their numbers from flocking to these new sects. Jenkins notes, “One way or another, inside the Catholic Church or outside it, Third World Christianity is becoming steadily more Pentecostal” (67).
Its interesting how the author brings these seemingly diverse Southern churches into focus and highlights the common characteristics that thread them together and differentiates them from their Northern neighbors. In the present day religious realities of the Northern churches, Jenkins cites Weber’s view in that they “are formal bodies of that intellectualize religious teachings and restrain emotionalism in their services. They offer believers a formal liturgy and set prayers, in ways that portray the divine as remote from daily life” (p. 136). By comparison, sects, “are overly emotional and spontaneous, and encourage individual mystical experience; they tend toward fundamentalism, while shunning the intellect as a possible source of danger. The prayers of the sects indicate a firm belief that the divine is ever-present, ever-ready to act in everyday life” (pp. 136-37; see p. 77). Southern Christians hail from the poorer people on the planet, hold a strong supernatural orientation, are far more interested in personal salvation over radical politics (p. 7). The rising churches in the South claim an abundance of precedents directly from the scriptures that readily support a worldview based on prophetic visions, spirits, healing, and exorcisms. Pentecostalism caters to the poor and disenfranchised people who read the gospel account and literally live it out in their life setting. Jenkins adds “For Southern Christians, and not only for Pentecostals, the apostolic world as described in the New Testament is not just a historical account of the ancient Levant, but an ever-present reality open to any modern believer, and that includes the whole culture of signs and wonders” (p. 128).
Seeing The Christian World Come Full Circle
Alongside this eminent religious world shift, the author cites the religious demographic consequences that have and will continue to take place in Christendom. “Looking at the supply side of the equation,” according to Jenkins, “Southern peoples will face continuing pressures to move northward en masse, due to poverty and environmental catastrophe” (p. 97). The renewal of a non-Western religion and the Southern migrant movement today has allowed me to pull back and see Christian world history come full circle in my generation. Jenkins describes our non-Western religious roots, “founded in the Near East, Christianity for its first thousand years was stronger in Asia and North Africa than in Europe, and only after about 1400 did Europe (and Europeanized North America) decisively become the Christian heartland” (p. 15). According to the author, as the Southern churches grow and mature he can imagine the Christians in the global South looking northward and taking the initiative to export their unique beliefs and practices and evangelize their unchurched Northern neighbors (p. 14). The author need not speculate how this future synthesis might look like in that in my corner of the world I am involved in pastoring a first generation Filipino migrant diaspora church that will soon be reaching out to the second generation of natural Western-born Filipinos: the new mission field that has successfully assimilated with the culture of North America. I am convinced that this account challenges the commonly accepted view of Christianity as a White or Western ideology that was shipped to the unwilling shores of Third World, under the sword of the Spanish colonialists, British imperialists, and American televangelists.
Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.
Jenkins (history and religious studies, Pennsylvania State Univ.) believes that we are on the verge of a transformational religious shift. As he explains it, Christianity, the religion of the West, is rapidly expanding south into Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and he predicts that by the year 2050, only about one-fifth of the world's three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasian. By numbers alone, they will be able to overwhelm the present political secular nation- and city-states and replace them with theocracies, similar to the Islamic Arab nations. He ends with a warning: with the rise of Islam and Christianity in the heavily populated areas of the Southern Hemisphere, we could see a wave of religious struggles, a new age of Christian crusades and Muslim jihads. These dire prognostications could be seen as just another rant from a xenophobic pseudo-prophet; however, the author is a noted historian, and his statements are well formed, well supported by empirical evidence, and compellingly argued. The only criticism is the brevity of the book. One hopes that The Next Christendom is only an introduction to a deeper analysis of a fascinating topic. Recommended for all libraries. Glenn Masuchika, Rockwell Collins Information Ctr., Cedar Rapids, IA