The Faith of the Global South
The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity
reviewed by Jeremy Lott
The germ for The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity appeared as a fascinating article in the December 2000 issue of Chronicles, entitled “Ethiopia Lifts Her Hands.” After marching readers through a series of disastrously stupid past predictions about the future and religion (e.g., Jefferson’s paean to an inevitable Unitarian America), Pennsylvania State University professor Philip Jenkins acknowledged that “it would take a fool to try to foretell the religious loyalties of the coming century: I am that fool.” This was a display of false modesty, however, as Jenkins, an expert on all things religious, with books under his belt on subjects ranging from clerical sex scandals to the misguided search for the historical Jesus, is nobody’s idea of a fool.
In the article, Jenkins relayed the usual response by fellow academics and writers when they learned he was doing research on future trends in world religion: “Is Christianity in general—and the Catholic Church in particular—going to make it?” The inquisitors uniformly evinced shock at learning that “both should be expanding apace through the coming century . . . because the faith is so strong in those regions that are growing at an astonishing rate.”
Indeed, The Next Christendom begins with a slap at those who see Christianity as exclusively bound up with Western culture and thus as an “ideological arm of Western imperialism.” Radicals who see Christians as primarily “un-Black, un-poor, and un-young,” says Jenkins, will soon be forced to rethink their prejudices, as they are confronted by an expansion of the faith in areas that are about as young and poor and brown (and black and yellow) as you can get. In fact, the very phrase “a White Christian” may soon sound “like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’”
The book argues, based on current announced religious commitments and the consensus in the field of demographic analysis, that future Christian losses to secularism—mostly in Europe, but also in Anglo (and French) North America—should be more than made up for by gains in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Should this occur, the shift will have a number of effects on the faith as a whole, especially in communions that make claims to universality or that place a strong emphasis on missions. The faith of the “global South,” Jenkins explains, has quite a different flavor than the faith of the American or European reader’s Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic, or even Baptist upbringing.
In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, European missionaries, Protestant and Catholic, “were excited to find how many of their ideas resonated with native cultures.” There was no need for the missionaries to defend monotheism to tribal peoples who already worshiped a great high God, “a being far more exalted than the common run of spirits and deities” they would have encountered in parts of Asia or even Europe. Unlike in the increasingly secularized West, no defense of the supernatural was necessary. Spirits and visions, and often malevolent forces, are part of the shared reality of the people in even the most advanced African nations—which can occasionally lead to witch panics that far surpass the trials in Salem—so the concepts of original sin, the need for redemption, or divine intervention needed no hawking.
The snug fit has been striking. In fact, “The main problem that the missionaries faced in Africa and much of Asia was not that they were trying to explain a bafflingly alien worldview, but that their message rang almost too true with local cultures.” This convergence can often lead to a soft—and occasionally a hard—syncretism, and stir up a conflict between the locals, who don’t understand why their newfound faith should require them not to sacrifice that goat or venerate their ancestors, and the shocked foreign missionaries, who see both as instances of superstition trumping faith.
It was this sort of creeping syncretism that Jenkins thinks the Vatican had in mind in when it issued Dominus Iesus (Lord Jesus), an “encyclical seemingly designed for the sole purpose of enraging American liberals” by forcefully reasserting the unique role that Christ plays in salvation and couching such salvation almost exclusively in terms of the Catholic Church. American and European liberals promptly, and predictably, pitched a fit, saying, in effect, “How dare the pope scuttle decades of interfaith dialogue!” In a recent essay in Commonweal, Luke Timothy Johnson told the Vatican to knock it off with these disruptive documents.
However, what those churchmen did not understand “was that the Vatican just was not speaking to them.” Rather, the encyclical was directed at the faithful in areas of “intense religious atmospheres”—such as Korea, Nigeria, and China—where the pressures to go along with the dominant, often repressive culture, combined with the believers’ natural sympathy for the ways of the old faiths, can absolutely shatter the gospel.
The Next Christendom is not without its share of questionable assumptions and odd quirks. To name but a few: Demographers have often been wildly wrong (e.g., John Maynard Keynes’s lament of a population shortage on the eve of the Baby Boom). In all the areas where Christianity and Islam conflict, Jenkins makes the brave, if overly optimistic assumption that Christianity will not be squashed (though, to be fair, he does spend a chapter addressing the nature and severity of the challenges of other religions). In discussing ancient African communions (e.g., the Coptic and Ethiopic churches), he skirts the issue of their monophysitism, and its possible connection to the more ancient religions.
Then there is the maddening spectacle of Jenkins himself. The reader wonders throughout where exactly the professor stands on the trends he is writing about. At times—when he argues that feminism may be one of the best methods of population control ever devised or when he clucks at African clerics for failing to promote condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS—he sounds not unlike those Western liberals that the Vatican wasn’t speaking to.
In the main, however, the Episcopalian professor reserves most of his fire for said liberals, Protestant and Catholic alike, usually by damning them as irrelevant and growing more so by the day. As evidence, he cites the Vatican’s ongoing conflict with the Dutch diocese and remarks that “there are about half as many [nominal] Catholics in the whole of the Netherlands as in (say) just the Manila metropolitan area. . . . Of course the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are so very conservative: they can count.”
If Jenkins is right, and he mounts a compelling case, then traditional believers in the West may find the next Christendom much more to their liking than the present one.
Jeremy Lott is a student at Redeemer Pacific College in Langley, British Columbia.
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“The Faith of the Global South” first appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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