Back to the Bible
A recently rediscovered religious text is making huge waves in the world today. With stunning power, it is driving the largest religious change in human history. This book is subversive, revolutionary, and transformative in its approach to good and evil; spirituality; politics; wealth and poverty; race, ethnicity, and social status; gender and sexuality; and health and healing. It also reveals long-hidden truths about Jesus of Nazareth. What is this book? Is it the Gospel of Thomas? No. How about The Da Vinci Code? Hardly.
It's the Bible. All over the global South—in Africa, Asia, and to a large extent in Latin America as well1—people are reading, believing, and living out of the Bible in ways that make it a very different book from the one known in the North Atlantic realms. Not only that, but because of unprecedented migration, this new Christianity is close at hand in the North as well. In The New Faces of Christianity, a stunning sequel to The Next Christendom, historian Philip Jenkins sets out to take a much closer look at the Christianity of the global South. What he finds is a deeply biblical faith that understands the Scriptures in strikingly different ways than are common in the global North.
A New Christian Heartland
Many northern Christians, accustomed to assuming that Christianity's home base is their own familiar turf, have mental habits that make it difficult for them to care what their African and Asian counterparts think. To counter these assumptions, Jenkins quickly recounts the trends toward southern ascendancy that he featured in his earlier work. In 1900, 80 percent of the world's Christians lived in Europe and North America. Today, more than 60 percent of the world's Christians live outside those lands. While only about one million of the 28 million baptized Anglicans in Britain go to church on a Sunday, Nigeria's 18 million Anglicans pack their houses of worship to overflowing. Christianity in the United States seems to be holding its own, but largely because of its revitalization by recent immigrants. As the demographic center of Christian adherence and vitality continues to shift southward, Jenkins argues further, it will be only natural for the views from the South to gain weight. Voices and perspectives from Europe, Christianity's declining northern margin, will seem less authoritative.
Even so, with the world's great Christian institutions, their revenue streams, and powerful religious media still residing in the North, it is not easy to see signs of change. Yet the signs are there; in one ecumenical fellowship after another, for example, southern Christians are now the leaders. The head of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches is Setri Nyomi, a Ghanaian Presbyterian theologian. The new chief executive of the World Council of Churches is Samuel Kobia, a Kenyan Methodist church leader. Books & Culture readers can see the signs closer by. The dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, one of the leading evangelical seminaries in the United States, is Tite Tiénou, a theologian from Burkina Faso.
The rising clout of southern Christians and their perspectives has shown up most dramatically in the current Anglican controversy over homosexuality in the priesthood. The Anglican communion's vast majority now comes from the southern continents, and to the vast majority of southern Anglican church members and leaders, homosexual behavior is sinful. It is forbidden in Scripture and ancient church tradition, they insist, and there they rest their case. Southern influence at the 1998 Lambeth Bishops Conference derailed northern attempts to liberalize church rules about gay clergy. How much this matters is clearly reflected in the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent letter of admonition to the American Episcopal leaders. By their consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003, he said, Americans risk breaking fellowship with the worldwide communion. So bishops from Kampala and Singapore sat in judgment of their American counterparts, and the rather liberal Anglican primate in Britain backed them up—a trend that continued at the meeting of Anglican primates in Tanzania earlier this year. This is indeed a new era, and it is high time that northern Christians learned more about their fellow believers in Christianity's new southern heartlands.
Words of Power
Jenkins uses the Anglican controversy over sexual morality to enter into the Bible as read by southern Christians. Their biblicism has been called traditional, literalistic, conservative, and fundamentalist, but Jenkins concludes that none of these labels really fits. Rather, the southern Christians' Bible is more immediate in its address to their realities. African and Asian Christians revere the Bible and identify with its cultural setting and worldview. They see it as sacred text, with words of power, to an extent that has been lost to much of northern Christianity.
To understand this approach to the Bible, Jenkins informs us of the ways in which the Scriptures, freshly translated, have been received into Asian and African societies. In many of these realms, people already were familiar with the idea of sacred texts, so the Bible was given special status from the start. In the hands of newly literate people, the power of biblical words has been explosive. Northerners need to recall the electrifying force in Reformation days of common-language Scriptures, made available to new readers. "It burns!" exclaimed one of the Puritan preachers about the Bible, and so it does today for Nigerians and Indians and Chinese.
The Bible is read communally in the global South, so that the nonliterate, too, can profit from hearing the Word. Northern churches retain this ancient practice, but in the South, it is more central to congregational life. Believers commit long passages to memory and together they become people of the Book. It is God's word to them and in them, and it is not to be gainsaid. They venerate the Bible as a holy book, even a talisman. One of the last vestiges northerners have of such uses for the Bible is for swearing in court witnesses and office holders. The Bible in the South is a powerful evangelistic weapon, commanding deference from curious hearers, impressing them with its literary and spiritual qualities, and speaking pointedly to their lives.
Southern people of faith affirm the Bible's teachings and stories to be true, and no historical criticism can sway them. Liberal critics say that these views come from a lack of education, or from fundamentalist missionaries, but these claims patronize Africans and Asians. They do think for themselves about such matters. Scholars in the southern churches choose to accept more direct readings because this Bible fits their reality and speaks, bang on, to life as they know it. A few years ago, while talking with a distinguished Ghanaian Bible translator, I learned that he had taken his advanced degree at Union Theological Seminary, in New York. And what did he make of the views of Scripture there, I asked. He smiled: "I lost them overboard on the way home."
A Larger Bible
One of the remarkable features of African and Asian biblical reading, Jenkins says, is the affinity readers feel to the Old Testament. In contemporary northern churches, the traditional doctrine that the New Testament fulfills and builds upon the Old Testament has mutated into the idea that the New Testament supersedes, even replaces, the Old Testament. But Africans find the Old Testament exciting and relevant. It deals with nomadic life, polygamy, rituals of sacrifice—their traditional world. Asians revere the Old Testament's wisdom literature, its "oriental" mind. On both continents, the Old Testament's denunciation of idolatry—a subject that usually gets modulated and symbolized in the North—is straight-up relevant and prophetic. Both Africans and Asians love the Book of Proverbs. Modern-minded northerners constantly look for fresh ways of saying things, which can make the biblical couplets sound trite and old. But in orally transmitted cultures, proverbs convey the wisdom of the ancients across generations. Biblical proverbs interweave almost seamlessly with traditional wise sayings.
There is much about the New Testament to love in the global South as well, and the favorite passages may surprise northerners. Northern commentators, especially since the Reformation, have wrestled with the place of the Epistle of James in the canon, with its apparent contradictions of the Pauline doctrines of salvation by faith alone. An "epistle of straw," Martin Luther called it. But James is wisdom literature, and as such, it may be the most powerful and revered New Testament book of them all for southern Christians. It is proverbial, practical, concrete, action-oriented, and directed to the poor and the distressed. Jenkins puts the entire epistle in an appendix and urges his readers to revisit it.
The Book of Revelation does not play well in northern, mainline contexts. It is redolent of weird last-days cults, it is filled with violent imagery and retribution, and it depicts the meltdown of human civilization, not its advance. But given the grim realities of many places in the global South, Jenkins observes, Revelation's "portrayal of secular states as deceptive, evil persecutors, and cities as the seats of demonic forces," gives it widespread appeal: "For many, left and right, it reads like a political science textbook." Revelation promises beleaguered believers that no matter what, God's justice will prevail. So in Uganda, Idi Amin stood in for the Beast; in China, believers gained hope during times of intense persecution; and in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Kairos Document of 1985 named the Nationalist regime the Antichrist.
Good News to the Poor
The average Christian in the world today is a poor person, living in daunting circumstances. The biblical world of famine, plagues, poverty, displacement and exile, tyranny, and endemic cronyism and corruption is fairly distant to most northern readers, but it is immediately relevant to Asians and Africans. Biblical stories of robbers on the roads, streets full of the crippled and sick, the struggle to pay gouging tax and debt collectors and demanding landlords, and even of life in small villages have become foreign to most in the North, but they are familiar to people in the global South. Urban and suburban northerners have lost the meaning of sowing and reaping and of shepherding. But in Africa, the great majority of the population still practices traditional agriculture. Indebtedness, under northern credit terms, has lost much of its horror, but "forgive us our debts" is a huge matter in India, where debt slavery continues.
The prophets' visions of national collapse and exile seem very remote, one might expect, to Norwegians, but for Liberians it happened just yesterday. Biblical accounts of famine and drought are today's news in Zimbabwe. Those who have been truly hungry and beyond thirsty find great joy in God's salvation described as feasts of plenty and wells that never go dry. The biblical lamentations about life's transitory nature speak to the depths of people whose life expectancy is in the forties, and who see the ravages of malaria and aids every day.
Much has been made of the "prosperity gospel" movement in recent northern commentary on southern Christianity. This emphasis urges believers to give more to the church and to expect, even demand, more from God materially in return. Both Africa and Asia have seen some of the more outrageous expressions of this movement, Jenkins admits, but not that much worse than what we see here on the cable channels. Even in the prosperity temples, Jenkins observes, congregants learn and teach some good things: financial discipline, freedom from debt, thrift, self-restraint, and sobriety.
Life in the Third World, Jenkins argues further, should prompt appreciation for a faith that insists that God cares about people's material needs and God wants their lot to improve. In Lagos or Mumbai, it might seem impossible for ordinary people to survive without some miracles. Even the employed middle classes worry about regular paychecks, see their savings being destroyed by hyperinflation, endure frequent power and water outages, expect police to shake them down and fear banditry on the roads. What's the use to plan and save when bad things happen and built things fall apart?
Does God care for his own? For people in Africa and Asia, that is an urgent question. African and Asian traditional religions prompt people to ask practical questions: Does your God heal or not? Does your God bring rain for the crops or not? A religion that speaks to the soul but not to the body is not a true religion. Christianity very frequently won its right to be heard with miracles. Jenkins turns the tables on northerners who critique southern Christians' health-and-wealth theology and practice. He asks whether "Euro-American mainline churches allow any serious belief whatever that prayer can shape one's material conditions." If not, then why do they still repeat such prayers in their services?
Christianity in the global South is preeminently a healing religion, and it links healing to deliverance from evil. African and Asian traditional religions engage a thickly populated spiritual universe, and among Christians too there is a firm belief in the reality of spirits and of Satan. Like the world the apostles engaged in the New Testament, southern Christians live in societies where paganism is still very close. Dream diviners, sorcerers, spirit doctors and mediums still abound—and now and then, public scandals expose rings of ritual abuse. So Asian and African Christians have a firm and present sense of spiritual warfare. Deliverance and exorcism are mainstream Christian practices, not relegated to the sectarian margins, as in the North.
Deliverance and Liberation
When southern Christians look to Jesus, they see their deliverer. Their defining text of Jesus' ministry is not so much the quiet conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 about being born again as Jesus' public inauguration of his ministry in Luke 4, where he boldly claims that he has come to heal, to deliver, and to liberate. In Africa and Asia, Jenkins insists, deliverance theology and liberation theology go hand in hand.
Take, for example, the widespread idea in Africa and Asia that ancestral curses cause the fate of the lower classes. Jesus' answer to what caused a man to be blind from birth (John 9)—that it was not his parents' sins—is a radical, liberating message. It is particularly so in India, where Christianity is growing rapidly among lower-caste people. Jenkins argues that belief in spiritual warfare and healing is not otherworldly; it calls for intensive engagement with the social problems and practices of the day.
The New Testament gospels and letters warn that persecution is the inevitable consequence of faith in Christ. American fundamentalist Bible teachers who emphasize these texts may be thought to have a persecution complex, but for many Christians in Africa and Asia, persecution is real and continuing. Brutal regimes or bitter religious rivals subject Christian believers to outright violence: 50,000 died in five years in one Nigerian province. Other believers encounter everyday bullying and intimidation, such as many house-church believers have experienced in China. The personality cults of modern-day dictators in Asia and Africa vividly reflect the associations of pagan ruler worship and tyranny in the books of Daniel and Revelation.
Likewise, Bible passages promising the vindication of God's beleaguered people speak loudly in the global South. Latin American liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s was thoroughly versed in the Scriptures. Favorite texts were Mary's Magnificat and Jesus' "Nazareth Manifesto" in Luke, and the prophecies of Nahum against godless and arrogant Ninevah (read the United States). Biblical judgments on the rich and haughty and God's message of vindication for the lowly range far and wide in Africa and Asia as well. The story of Exodus and Pharaoh has been popular in Korea, where Christians remember their bondage to imperial Japan. Dalit Christians in India feel deep vindication at Jesus' flouting of social taboos, his preference for the poor and outcast, and his frequent jabs at the élite priests and scribes (read Brahmins). The Maori people of New Zealand, like many other ethnic minorities who live at the social margins, identify with the insults Jesus bore for being a Galilean.
Jenkins sees a major shift in such readings of the Bible. Liberation theology in the 1970s frequently led to support for secular socialist states, which all too often turned dictatorial and corrupt, as in Zimbabwe. Capitalism won out over socialist command economies, and Roman Catholic liberationism and Protestant radicalism lost ground to Pentecostalism. Southern political readings of the Gospel now focus more on honesty, transparency, and good order than on economic solutions. The failed hopes of post-colonial Africa now prompt biblical people to be more skeptical about the secular state, so churches work directly on social problems while championing human rights in the political arena.
Liberation texts now underscore sermons about governmental oppression, extortion, and greed. One of the masters of the craft has been Anglican Bishop David Gitari of Kenya, whose sermons on Cain and Abel, Queen Esther, the Beatitudes, and Daniel all spoke fairly transparently to the depredations of the Moi regime. One of Gitari's favorite themes, Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," is heard widely in this genre of southern Christian preaching. Good shepherds protect and provide for their sheep; evil shepherds prey on their own (John 10). So the Lord is my shepherd—and you, unjust ruler, are not!
Jenkins observes that in much of Africa and Asia, the experience of disorder, coupled with the demise of post-independence statist utopias, leads to skepticism regarding mainstream society's evolving standards. In the North Atlantic region, faith in progress continues to push Christians to accommodate their faith to society's changing values, but the "secular narrative of progress" is not plausible in the global South. Christians are frequently minority groups in largely non-Christian societies, and their instinctive stance toward prevailing social norms is to oppose them. To conform to prevailing social norms is to give in to chaos and revert to paganism. From this perspective, the African outrage at northern liberal churches' accommodation to new sexual norms makes deep sense.
One of the abiding northern impressions of southern Christianity is that it is oppressive for women. Jenkins concedes that churches tend to reflect the patriarchal gender roles in Africa and Asia and to find support for them in the Scriptures. But he argues that the overall trends show that women in the new churches are finding "the power to speak and often to lead." Christianity thus "is transforming women's roles and aspirations" in the global South.
The most explosive impact on women's roles and outlook, Jenkins observes, comes from reading the Bible. Literacy itself is a huge issue in many parts of Africa and Asia, where the majority of adults do not read and write, and much smaller percentages of women are literate than are men. Traditional societies have commonly expressed their cultural power orally, and the cultural mouthpieces were the elders, mostly the older men. For women, literacy provides direct access to authoritative words, and the result is transforming. Spiritual status and authority in church come from knowledge of the Bible, ability to quote it at length and expound its meaning, and even from being the quickest to look up the next text.
Meeting in Bible studies, church guilds, and major conventions, African and Asian women find opportunities for initiative, expression, and collective influence beyond what is available to women in most traditional societies. They comb through the Scriptures and find multiplied passages that confirm their "loosening," or deliverance in Christ. The statement in Romans 7:2 that a widow is "loosed from her husband" when he dies has little meaning in the global North, but Asian and African Christian widows are freed thereby from the demands of the husband's family, including the possibility of bondage. The story of Jesus raising Jairus' daughter, in which northern feminists see a female voice silenced by patriarchy, becomes the banner theme of an emerging African feminist movement: "Arise, daughter." So Jenkins finds that Christian women reading the Bible are leading a "biblically fueled social revolution" in Africa and Asia. The greatest social changes resulting are a growing emphasis on monogamous marriage and a rising critique of male machismo.
Read It Again, Facing South
Jenkins concludes the book by reflecting on the challenges that southern Christianity raises for northern Christians. It can be unsettling, he observes, to look again at a Bible we thought we knew. The Christianity emerging from the southern regions has recovered themes of primitive Christianity that the northern churches have forgotten. Indeed, northern Christians feel a great distance from the ancient faith. Many have learned to defer to the authority of secular norms, and many believe that the Scriptures themselves need to be assessed by secular standards. The North-South divide in consciousness is huge, but Jenkins does not believe that it is insuperable. For starters, he recommends that northern Christians try to understand the Bible as it is being read in the global South.
As an exercise in sympathetic imagination, he says, we should try regarding Ruth from the vantage point of "a hungry society threatened by war and social disruption." We should try reading Psalm 23 "as a political tract, a rejection of unjust secular authority." Look at Revelation "with the eyes of believers in a rapidly modernizing society, trying to comprehend the inchoate brutality of the megalopolis." Read James once again, and see how "radical" and "charismatic" fit together in one package. Read Jesus' Luke 4 inaugural from the perspective of "the multiform entrapment" of living in a Third World nation. And read Jesus' many transgressions of Pharisaic ritual purity and ceremonial rules with the Dalits of Hindu lands in mind. Given southern Christian ascendancy, Jenkins suggests, these represent the "normal way in which Christians read the Bible in the early twenty-first century."
So where does that insight leave us here in the North? Should we say that southern Christianity is authentic and "normal," and that northern Christianity is in need of revival and reform? Jenkins resists making judgments that are so simple, and he cautions against romanticizing southern Christianity. But he bristles at the condescending cliché, that southern Christianity is "a mile wide and an inch deep." Really? Then how is it that so many have persisted in the face of death and suffering? Let us grant southern Christianity's depth and power, Jenkins says, without turning a blind eye to its shortcomings.
Another too-easy northern answer is the cultural relativist's reply, that southern Christianity is authentic for its cultural context but not for this one. Jenkins agrees that the cultural gap is indeed very great, but he observes that this relativistic answer will be the more charitable response of northern liberals, many of whom will simply reject southern Christianity as backward. There will be schisms, he predicts.
Jenkins acknowledges that there are northern revivalist movements that share some of the traits of southern Christianity, but evangelicals are not his targeted readers. What if they were? Southern Christian difference seems greatest from mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics, but there is plenty in this book to challenge American evangelicals as well. Jenkins shows a southern church with a mature voice of its own, not as mediated by well-meaning but patronizing missionaries. He shows us biblical texts read in ways that radically depart from conservative scholars' exegetical rules. Evangelicals in the North think they are the champions of the Bible's divine authority and of God's miraculous power. Yet southern Christians revere the text beyond even what American fundamentalists' sensibilities allow, and they see a world that is spiritually charged beyond even northern charismatics' reckoning.
African and Asian Christians embrace a gospel of deliverance for the oppressed and judgment for the mighty, far beyond what most American evangelicals can accept. Southern Christians are deeply suspicious of the world's great powers, notably Washington and Wall Street. So conservative evangelicals in the North will have their issues with southern Christians, and estrangement may result. The Southern Baptist Convention's decision to leave the Baptist World Alliance may well be the harbinger of more tensions to come. With so many Asian, African, Caribbean, and Latin American Christians coming to the United States and Canada, these tensions are closer to home than many can see just now.
Despite these tensions, Jenkins encourages northern Christians to approach the majority church with humility, respect, and appreciation. He believes that northern congregations can profit immensely by trying to read the Bible "from the South." They can gain thereby a fresh appreciation of the Scriptures' apocalyptic and wisdom passages, come to grips with life's fragility, and recognize the hubris of modern civilizations.
Perhaps the most significant Bible lessons the northern church can learn, Jenkins suggests, are that there is a spiritual dimension to healing, and that they should practice the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness. Inspired, moreover, by the gospel's ferment in southern societies, northerners can take courage in their own witness. Seeing that God's grace still has the power to transform cultures today, northerners can stand up to the relentless pressure they feel to be "conformed to the pattern of this world" (Romans 12:2).
For his last bit of advice on what northern Christians can learn from southern believers, Jenkins poses a revived appreciation for the Scriptures: "Reading the Bible through fresh eyes constantly reminds us of the depths that still remain to be discovered there." Rather than running after "the next spurious claim about the real truth of Christianity … based on documents unaccountably hidden from the world until recently," Jenkins insists, northern Christians should acknowledge with their southern counterparts that the Bible's answers "are quite amazing enough."
Reorienting Northern Christianity
Jenkins writes as a humanist more than as a theologian, and even in this last section, where he offers advice, he is reluctant to make normative theological conclusions. He backs off from any overt judgments about what the rise of southern Christianity might mean for God's larger purposes or the relative authenticity of Christianity's southern and northern branches. I appreciate his reluctance; we historians generally lack the theological sophistication to make such calls. Moreover, it has been our special responsibility to point out life's ironic and surprising layers of meaning, and to caution that some of these layers lie out of reach for the current generation, even its theologians. Sometimes it is good to suspend judgment, to wait and see.
Even so, this story is too hot, too earth-shaking, for northern Christian intellectuals to withhold judgment. If southern Christianity becomes the faith's norm, it rocks our world. Andrew Walls, one of the wisest of this generation's Christian scholars, observes that northern Christians have "long grown used to the idea that they were guardians of a 'standard' Christianity; … [but now] they find themselves in the presence of new expressions of Christianity, and new Christian lifestyles that have developed … under the conditions of African, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Latin American life."
There are two temptations to avoid in responding to southern Christianity, Walls advises:
One lies in an instinctive desire to protect our own version of Christian faith, or even to seek to establish it as the standard, normative one. The other, and perhaps the more seductive in the present condition of Western Christianity, is the postmodern option: to decide that each of the expressions and versions is equally valid and authentic, and that we are therefore each at a liberty to enjoy our own in isolation from all the others.
Neither approach, Walls, insists, is the gospel way. As the Epistle to the Ephesians points out, we make up the Body of Christ only when we are brought together, for
each of the culture-specific segments [is] necessary to the body but … incomplete in itself. Only in Christ does completion, fullness, dwell. And Christ's completion, as we have seen, comes from all humanity, from the translation of the life of Jesus into the lifeways of all the world's cultures and subcultures through history. None of us can reach Christ's completeness on our own. We need each other's vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ.2
The implications of incorporating southern Christianity are immense. They range across matters of personal piety and worldview, communal worship and witness, mission aims and outlook, and all the realms of theology. For those of us who pursue what the Jesuits call an "intellectual apostolate" on the broader cultural frontier, this great religious fact of our time changes everything. Every field of inquiry, every learned profession, must factor in this seismic shift in Christianity's placement, practice and priorities.3
This strange new world of faith is as far away from us as our spare northern consciousness is from the minds of the apostles. Yet it has come as close by as the neighbors down the street, for "these people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also" (Acts 17:6). May we have the wisdom and the courage to open our spirits and our work to their witness. Such reorientation involves sacrifice, but the joy of discovery and the delight of new fellowship will more than repay us.
Joel Carpenter is director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College. With Lamin Sanneh he edited The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World (Oxford Univ. Press).
1. In The New Faces of Christianity, Philip Jenkins decides to focus on Africa and Asia, where he sees more similarities in outlook and approach to the Bible than he sees between them and Latin America. One might question his decision, but there is so much to learn from this book about African and Asian Christianity that asking the author to factor in Latin America as well might be asking too much.
2. Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Orbis, 2002), p. 79.
3. I have tried to outline the ways in which northern Christian intellectual life needs to reorient itself in "The Christian Scholar in an Age of World Christianity," chapter 4 of Christianity and the Soul of the University: Faith as a Foundation for Intellectual Community, edited by Douglas V. Henry and Michael D. Beaty (BakerAcademic, 2006), pp. 65-84.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
See all comments