the new faces of christianity

A Jenkins-Junkie, that is what I am...

[NB - This one took a bit longer because I left my first copy (almost finished) in the seat pocket when disembarking on a plane in Singapore last year. UGH!?]

The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford University Press, 2006). This is a book which lives at the interface between biblical interpretation and global Christianity and should be required reading for those interested in either topic - with chapter 8 heading for the reader/anthology in a formal course on both subjects. He opens this final chapter with these words:

"The impact of the Bible in the global South must raise questions for European and American Christians, questions that are at once exhilarating and disturbing ... We can reasonably ask whether the emerging Christian traditions of the Two-Thirds World have recaptured themes and trends in Christianity that the older churches have forgotten(178)."

Exhilarating. Disturbing.
That about sums it up.

Jenkins makes his way through a series of polarities - Old (Testament) and New (Testament), Poor and Rich, Good and Evil, Persecution and Vindication, Women and Men, North and South - and demonstrates the different ways in which people in the global South read the Bible on these subjects. A quick scan of the index reveals that he touches down in 52(!) different books of the Bible as he zooms around Africa and Asia, in particular. The letter of James (and Psalm 91 - "in Christian Africa and Asia, this psalm is everywhere (108)") receives attention enough in the book to warrant including the full text of both in an Appendix.

Three sections grabbed my attention.

(a) One is in the discussion on 'good and evil' where Jenkins tackles the common perception that people in the global South are a bit wacky with their attitudes to healing, spiritual warfare, and the supernatural. "Viewed more closely, global South versions of Christianity and Bible interpretation are much less archaic than they might appear, while global North assertions of rationality are more fragile (122)." In a section entitled 'The Triumph of Reason', where Jenkins engages the wacky stuff that happened in the wake of 9/11 and things like "witchcraft panic" in the USA, the conclusion is clear: "Western society possesses an ineradicable substratum of irrationality and ritualistic behavior (127)." Western countries need to be far slower to point the finger...

(b) Another is entitled 'The Great Disappointment' and explores the failure of liberation theology in the global South. "As Marxism crumbled globally - and the apartheid crisis was resolved in southern Africa - the more utopian forms of liberation theology seemed increasingly obselete (140)" ... "states fail; churches flourish (142)."

(c) A final one touches down in Islam [Be warned - WOW coming up!]: "...the lived Christianity of Africa and Asia shares many assumptions with Islam, and in some matters, can be closer to Islam than to the Christianity of the advanced West ... (even the fasting season of Ramadan derives from the strict Lenten discipline of the Syrian churches) ... So many of the apparent differences between the two faiths arise from making a false comparison between the privatised Christianity of a largely prosperous post-Enlightenment West, and the collective and tradition-minded Islam of overwhelmingly poor nations in Africa and Asia ... If we compare rich Christians with poor Muslims, of course they seem to inhabit different universes, and the differences are still more acute if we compare older Western Christians with young Afro-Asian Muslims. As Euro-American Christians struggle to understand the Islam that represents such a vital political force, they could do worse than to try first to appreciate global South Christianity, with which so many share a common history and language (182)."

Maybe a few further seminal quotations will suffice?!

(quoting John Updike) "I don't think God plays well in Sweden ... God sticks pretty close to the equator (10)."

"A translated Bible defies conventional images of missionary imperialism. Once the Bible is in a vernacular, it becomes the property of the people. It becomes a Yoruba Bible, a Chinese Bible, a Zulu Bible; and the people in question have as much claim to it as does the nation that first brought it. It is no longer English or French (24)."

On Old and New: "Global South Christians retain much greater veneration for the Old Testament as a living source of authority than do Euro-American churches (53) ... James may be the single book that best encapsulates the issues facing global South churches today (60)."

On Poor and Rich: "Perhaps only hungry eyes can appreciate just how thoroughly images of food snd feasting, eating and starving, pervade both Testaments (78) ... For a Northern world that enjoys health and wealth to a degree scarcely imagined by any previous society, it is perilously easy to despise believers who associate divine favour with full stomachs or access to the most meager forms of schooling or health care; who seek miracles in order to flourish, or even survive. The Prosperity Gospel is an inevitable by-product of a church containing so many of the very poorest (97)."

On Persecution and Vindication: "For a global North Christian, the word "martyrdom" implies a cinematic lion (as with the gladiators); for an African, it suggests a jet fighter in the service of a strictly contemporary regime (130-131)."

On Women and Men: "Widowhood ranks among the most pressing women's rights concerns in many parts of Africa and Asia ... Respect for widows is a survival issue, and scripture passages that North American eyes flit over become burningly relevant (174)." [NB - it is amazing how often literalist Bible readers in the global North select the women-keep-silent passage in 1 Timothy 2, but sidestep the widow passage in 1 Timothy 5!].

On North and South: "we see things not as they are but as we are (179)." "God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away hungry(186 - go the Magnificat!)."

Two earlier reviews of Jenkins' books can be found here and here.

nice chatting



Andrew Butcher said…
Thanks, Paul. You should be a professional book reviewer, or at least get commission from the publishers because I read your review and once again thought I should buy the book!

I haven't read it (yet) but I wonder does Jenkins take account of a country like NZ where we are in the geographical South (not the West) and where our Christianity here is being shaped by those from the global East. There are some very interesting dynamics in NZ Christianity because of the large number of Asian Christians here (a topic on which George Wieland and I are writing our own book).

I think NZ churches and Christian organisations could lead the way in showing how the gospel bridges cultures, how we in the 'West' can learn so much from the depth of Christianity and Christians in the East, how we can be challenged about the privacy of our faith by those who wear it very publicly and at great cost, and how Scriptural narratives take on new and exciting meanings when read out of the context of tragedy, poverty and persecution.

The alternative, of course, is that we resort to prejudice, ignorance, racism, discrimination, well-worn ways of doing things with a white face and English words, and reinforce social divisions rather than challenge them.

I'm praying we take the first route.
Paul Windsor said…
Thanks for this, Andrew.

It is an interesting point you make. For years I have asked visitors to our country something similar.

New Zealand is not strictly speaking 'global North', or 'West'. Does that give us extra opportunities and privileges and responsibilities in relating to 'global South', or 'East'?

Sadly, I've never been satisfied with the answers I hear. Most think it is just geographical semantics we are playing because NZ really is aligned with North and West no matter where we may be on the map. They are slow to acknowledge that we might 'lead the way' simply because the influence of East and South is present in other countries in the North and West(arguably) just as much.

So it is an unresolved issue in my mind. I look forward to reading your thoughts on how Asian Christianity is shaping NZ Christianity.


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