Liberated by the Word

Book cover
The New Faces of Christianityby Philip Jenkins

Oxford Univ. Press. 272p $26


The North Atlantic captivity of the church is drawing to an end. The center of Christian gravity is undeniably shifting southward.

This development is not a blip on the religious radar screen but a profound permutation. Globally, a major gravitational adjustment is occurring in the population density, complexion and impact of the Christian faith.

We need continuing guidance from savants with a track record like Philip Jenkins to sift through the evidence and help us fathom what is actually taking place.

Several years ago Jenkins, who teaches history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, produced a missiological landmark with his book The Next Christendom. In it he suggested that a major perception shift was needed in the way northern hemispheric Christians envisioned the future. With The New Faces of Christianity he adds depth and substance to that earlier work. He digs deeper into the primary literature and engages firsthand a vast and colorful field to mine rich veins of Southern Christian experience, penetrating a very different worldview and providing help for Northern Christians who want to understand it better

Those conversant with contemporary Christian mission will not be surprised at many of Jenkins’s discoveries. Most will welcome his substantive overview of Christianity in the global South. Africa and Asia are his focus. Latin America is considered distinct, and he refers to it only indirectly.

The role and authority of Scripture in the life of the church is a defining issue. If you don’t believe the Scripture, why did you bring it to us in the first place? complains an African prelate. Eugene Robinson of New Hampshire, the Episcopal bishop who openly declared his committed relationship with another man before the approval of his appointment as bishop, speaks in defense: Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the church and Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong.

The immediate conflict over homosexuality is but the tip of the iceberg. The deeper issue resides in a divergent worldview between North and South on how Scripture is understood in cultures with a long history of scriptural familiarity and those relatively new to it.

Catholic bishop Peter Sarpong of Ghana states perceptively: To talk to the African of the centrality of the Word of God is to carry coals to Newcastle. Africans believe in the power of the Word. A recent study conducted by Africans also clarifies differing contexts: For the African Christians, the Bible has come to take the place of the traditional ancestor whose authority cannot be disputed.

Non-African Christians also believe in the power of the scriptural word. But until Northern Christians come to understand African Christians and their particular understanding of Scripture, destructive miscommunication will continue.

The scientifically influenced approach to Scripture that strongly influences biblical study in the West is of little value to many Southern Christians. Their leading theologians have learned biblical criticism in our seminaries but find it wanting. Neither do new African Christians follow a biblical literalism in the way North Americans have experienced it from fundamentalists. The African-American church can teach us to understand the difference between literalism and an experiential reading of the Bible that is both personal and communal. This difference is between accepting Scripture word for word and taking the words of Scripture seriously. The African-American religious experience, grounded in Scripture, has always reflected a definitive but not necessarily literalistic power.

The Christianity of the Southern church in much of Africa and Asia must be understood on its own terms and on the basis of what has meaning for Southerners. We need to suspend our judgment, says Jenkins, about the real issues and allow the churches of the South to formulate their responses to social and religious questions in their own context and viewed through a biblical lens as they understand it.

Much can be gained for the benefit of all. Taking a stance of openness rather than defensiveness and dismissal could help in the recovery of buried aspects of our own classic faith.

Some of the current debates taking place in the South mirror what occurred during the fourth century of church history. The modern Southern church is reminding us of the need to recognize the accretions that have built up around primitive and pristine understandings of the Western Christian heritage. Fresh Southern readings can restore lost faith traditions to their ancient centrality and give us something important to say to our contemporary societies.

Jenkins asks, shall the fundamentalists win? He compares North and South in terms of poor and rich, understandings of good and evil, persecution and vindication, women and men.

The author’s summation opens the way to hope in the midst of conflict and schism.

Jenkins does not see a North/South break like that between East and West in 1054 or between Rome and the reformers after 1517. Southern Christianity is evolving, he says. We can speak with fair confidence about the ethnic composition of the world’s Christians in fifty or a hundred years, but we must be on shakier grounds when it comes to predicting attitudes to authority or orthodoxy.

Instead of rejecting what upsets us, we can learn from our opponents. After all, the church has often overcome diversity and emerged stronger as a result.

We can be thrilled by the growth and influence of Christianity in the South, Jenkins suggests, but this should not cause us to write off Christianity in the North.

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