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a world far different from the one we thought we knew
on September 15, 2005
In a memorable passage from the movie APOLLO THIRTEEN, a military man in the tense Houston control room shares with a political figure his premonition that the tragedy unfolding before them will be *the* catastrophic moment for the space program. Mission control flight chief Gene Kranz overhears their conversation and addresses it: 'With all due respect, gentleman, I believe this will be our finest hour.' The scene could stand in for the hand-wringing that often accompanies the apparent demise of the Western church when it comes to prognosticating on its fate over against the perceived adversaries of secularism and post-modernism. Philip Jenkins reminds us that, when viewed through a wide-screen lens, the immediacy of threat often yields to a broad panorama of opportunity.
Over against the fear of resurgent religion that shows its face among our cultural elites, Philip Jenkins sketches the rise of 'global Christianity' in predominantly positive terms. The Penn State University scholar of religion has noticed long before most of us that the face of Christendom is already brown, southern, and confident. He helps us to work through the implications of this even as he persuades us that the hegemony of Euro-American Christianity is a thing of the past and that-unless we pay attention-we who are part of it are likely to be, as the old song says, the last to know.
In the first of ten compact chapters ('The Christian Revolution', pp. 1-14), Jenkins starts out with a bang. Professional analysts of global trends have missed out on perhaps the biggest one, a fact that the title of Jenkins' opening chapter provocatively suggests. Religious revolutions are not, as Western intellectuals too often suppose, mere matters of the heart. They bring with them profoundly this-worldly repercussions like crusades, wars, and what Samuel Huntington has famously termed 'the clash of civilizations'. They can also renew societies. Jenkins informs us that a 'Christian revolution' is already underway in the developing world, one that our political leaders ignore to the peril of all of us.
The historian who can write well-researched prose for a popular readership and manage to turn large assumptions on their head is a valuable person indeed. Jenkins accomplishes just this in his second chapter ('Disciples of All Nations' pp. 15-38). He helps us to see that Christianity is not best understood as a western religion. Its African, Middle Eastern, and Asian successes were large and entrenched centuries before it came to be perceived by some as the faith of white men. Even popular myth of Christian crusades dispossessing Muslims of their ancestral turf is misleading in the extreme when viewed against the historical facts of Islamic expansionism and enduring Christian communities among those peoples whom we today identify reflexively as Muslim. Europe entered late into this story. Jenkins wonders, with one of his sources, whether the universal Christianity he describes is not best seen as the 'renewal of a non-western religion', a suggestion that gains credence when one ponders how alien Western skepticism immediately appears when placed beside the biblical documents, on the one hand, and ancient or emerging Christian movements from Africa or Asia, on the other.
If Western mythology about the missionary enterprise(s) is to be believed, it is the power of kings, companies, and missionaries that enforced a European Christian faith upon the reluctant peoples of the Two-Thirds World. Jenkins does not believe it, however, arguing that even when these institutions are given their due, Christianity has become an indigenous brushfire in many of the regions under review ('Missionaries and Prophets', pp. 39-53). Indeed, Christian faith of one variety or another-and sometimes several at once-appears to have thrived since the retreat of colonial powers. A guilty missionary conscience would appear to be a neurosis suffered largely in the West.
When the demise of European empires brought forward the moment for non-Western churches to stand alone, they had little trouble doing so (Ch. 3, 'Standing Alone, pp. 55-78). Indeed, the European retraction coincided with several significant Christian advances that affected both the European-founded churches and newer autochthonous movements. Academic interest in the latter often overshadows the at least as remarkable health of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other traditional churches. Jenkins observes parallels between the developments he surveys in the 'South' and those that characterized a similar time of awakening, urbanization, and religious effervescence in the industrializing North.
Jenkins' fifth chapter ('The Rise of the New Christianity', pp. 79-105) produces some plausible and startling speculations based upon demographic trends extrapolated out from evidence that is available today. Population growth and contraction look poised to reduce European populations radically while a boom in many southern states continues apace. When turning to religious indicators, all of them suggest that the surge in southern Christianity has barely begun. The picture becomes even more interestingly when population mobility is factored into the equation. Immigration to Europe may well establish a renewed Christian presence on that continent. America looks set to become even more of a Christian nation than it is today, again due to immigration.
In 'Coming to Terms' (ch. 6, pp. 107-139), Jenkins surveys how churches in the Two-Thirds world `inculturate' the gospel in their cultural contexts. Though the results are sometimes alarming to Western Christians, Jenkins' view is rather more sanguine, claiming that most of these adaptations are well within the parameters of recognizably Christian faith. As demographic changes favor the Southern churches, their patterns of life and worship-often viscerally supernatural in their orientation-are bound to become the dominant ones in a new Christendom.
Jenkins' seventh chapter prognosticates about the varying models of church and state that can be expected as important southern countries become demographically Christian ('God and the World', pp. 141-162). The predictions are not all reassuring to heirs of a strong tradition of separation between the two. Even more unsettling is the possibility of a secular north looking down its nose at-and perhaps coming to blows with-a fervently religious south. In the limited but important realm of ecclesiastical politics, events since the 2002 publication of the book make Jenkins look prescient, a virtue he takes scholarly care to disown. Developments in the American political landscape make one wonder whether this country might become divided in two along the same lines rather than ease into alignment with its secular northern compeers. The sight of sophisticated American Episcopalians separating from local oversight, calling themselves 'Anglicans', and placing themselves under the pastoral care of African bishops may be the robin that calls this particular Spring.
Jenkins' book is highly quotable and for this reason often brandished as a triumphalist Christian tract. That this is a misreading of his work is nowhere more obvious than in his prediction of continued and severe Muslim-Christian conflict ('The Next Crusade', 163-190) in those regions where both Islam and Christianity are experiencing a resurgence. Jenkins acknowledges that a world in which powerful adversaries take religion far more seriously than does today's sophisticated North should keep strategic planners up at night. Simple parents imagining the world in which their children will come of age might also join this insomniac corps.
What effect will southern Christianity have on northern churches and culture? This is Jenkins' question in 'Coming Home' (pp. 191-209). Events since the late 90s have given the author some hard facts to work with. The southern churches are almost all theologically and culturally more conservative than their northern partners. But are they so distinct so as to be incapable of re-evangelizing secularized Europe and the USA? Maybe not. Stay tuned.
Jenkins takes up his final opportunity ('Seeing Christianity Again for the First Time', pp. 211-220) in the first person plural, for the first time plainly identifying himself as a Christian social scientist who cares deeply about the 'we' of Christian faith. Dispassionate analysis is exchanged for what becomes almost an indictment of northern Christian myopia. From the angle which Jenkins permits us to view the world of, say 2050 A.D., the persecution and poverty of which so much are made in the New Testament literature is also the context of the majority of today's Christians (not to mention those who await their moment a half-century hence).
As a Christian reviewer whose work takes him to those corners of the world (or are they its centers?) that Jenkins surveys, I find in Jenkins' work the ring of truth. Many Christians exult in the statistics of Christian resurgence that crowd the pages of this book and allow its title to sound something other than arrogant. In my judgment, they have misread Jenkins. There is more challenge here than pom-poms for waving by those of us whose historical circumstances make it comfortable to cheer on impoverished brethren who remain-by and large-at a safe distance.
This is not an optimistic book, though it is profoundly hopeful. It is perhaps among the two or three that Western Christians ought first to read in this decade, as we hope for a revision of this fine work in the next. We live on the cusp of extraordinary Christian advance, indeed it is already upon us. In the light of these demographic trends, however, the ancient voice of Tertullian sounds ever more pertinent to the world that is already taking shape, a world that Jenkins urges us to see from an entirely fresh angle. 'The blood of the martyrs', that church father still soberly reminds us, 'is the seed of the church.'