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Mark A. Noll

Turning the World Upside Down

The coming of global Christianity.

Historians of the recent past quite naturally feature the European War of 1914 to 1918 as the first defining event of the twentieth century. It precipitated a series of interconnected and immeasurably destructive European conflicts stretching from Belgium in 1914 to Kosovo in 1998. It drew many non-European nations closer to the West, triggered a profound spiritual crisis in Europe, and began a process that moved the United States into global preeminence.

Yet decisive as World War I certainly was, it is possible to imagine that historians of Christianity may one day consider the years surrounding 1915 as supremely significant for strikingly different reasons. This alternative perspective on the past opens up from the angle of contemporary world Christianity. Violence still looms large—but not the warfare of northwestern Europe. Rather, the events of greatest significance are the genocide committed against Christian Armenians by Turkish Muslims, culminating in 1915, and the nearly simultaneous Islamic attacks throughout the Middle East on other groups of Greek, Maronite, Jacobite, Nestorian, and Chaldaean Christians. The emergence of larger-than-life historical actors is still important—but not political leaders like Woodrow Wilson or Adolf Hitler. Rather, the key personalities are prophets like William WadÉ Harris, who in 1910 was visited by the angel Gabriel in a Liberian prison cell and then went forth to evangelize with astonishing effect throughout West Africa, or Simon Kimbangu, who underwent similar experiences with similar results only a few years later in the Belgian Congo. Again, in this alternative Christian History, the speeding up of global interchange is still critical, as also the role of the United States—but not for relationships in the West. Rather, the key exchanges come from the labors of Pentecostal missionaries, who in the early years of the century carried the message of baptism in the Holy Spirit from Azusa Street in Los Angeles to Brazil, Chile, Central America, Nigeria, the southern cone of Africa, the Philippines, and India.

Such an alternative world history will strike many readers as perverse. Yet those who give Philip Jenkins half a chance with the arguments presented in The Next Christendom may not be so sure. With this book, Jenkins, who teaches in the history and religion departments at Penn State, adds to his growing list of provocative titles that ask readers to rethink what they thought they knew for sure.1

The great merit of Jenkins's short study is to synthesize the burgeoning literature on non-Western Christianity and to make bold projections for the twenty-first century. His burden is to ask how the future must be regarded if contemporary realities like the following are kept firmly in view:

  • In 1999, there were 18 million Roman Catholic baptisms—of those, 8 million took place in Central and South America, 3 million in Africa (and 37% of the African baptisms were of adults).

  • As of the same year, the largest chapter of the Jesuits was in India, and not in the United States as had been the case for many decades before.

  • Today there are more Roman Catholics in the Philippines than in any single country of Europe, including Italy, Spain, or Poland.

  • For most major Protestant traditions, the largest individual denominations today are located outside of the United States or Europe—for example, many more Presbyterians in South Korea than in either Scotland or the United States; many more Assemblies of God in Brazil than in the United States.

  • Today there are at least 1,500 Christian foreign missionaries (mostly from Africa and Asia) at work in Great Britain.

  • For more than 50 years, the most rapid expansion of Christianity and Islam has been taking place in Southern nations with the highest general growth of population found anywhere on earth.

By highlighting such indisputable evidence, Jenkins underscores what missiologists have been saying for some time.2 The center of gravity in world Christianity has moved South. The "average" Christian in the world today is not a well-dressed Caucasian suburban male but a poor, brown-skinned woman living in a Third World megacity. While European Christianity has become archaeology and North American Christianity hangs on as sociology, Christianity in ever-expanding sections of Africa, Latin America, and Asia is dynamic, life-transforming, and revolutionary—if often also wild, ill-informed, and undisciplined. Muslim-Christian conflicts will almost certainly grow in quantity and intensity throughout the twenty-first century as centers of rapid Christian and Muslim expansion encroach upon each other in many parts of the Two-Thirds World.

What Jenkins makes of the new world Christian reality is not what all observers will see. China, for example, does not play a large part in this book, and his treatment of India is restricted to Hindu-Christian conflict and the role of Dalit ("untouchable") conversions in fueling that conflict. Yet it may very well be that world Christian leadership for the twenty-first century might come from India (where there exists an 1,800-year history of up-close negotiation with other world religions) or from China (where incredible Christian breakthroughs are occurring among both highly educated intellectual Élites and practitioners of traditional religion among the rural poor). Still, Jenkins's own conclusions from his evidence offer more than enough for serious thought.

He is especially provocative when he insists that Christian expansion deserves to be treated substantially as the new Christians describe it. Yes, of course, the need for social cohesion among displaced peoples can explain the attraction of Christian community, massive relocation to cities can explain the attraction of inner self-discipline provided by Pentecostal experience, and the promise of divine healing can explain the appeal of Christianity where there is no modern medicine. Jenkins, however, tries very hard to break through the Western insouciance that presumes to tell non-Westerners what they are really up to. Whatever political, social, or cultural factors may be appropriate for explaining Christian expansion in the Two-Thirds World, Jenkins holds that amid the great diversity of Christian churches in the Southern world, a common feature is "the critical idea that God intervenes directly in everyday life."

Jenkins also offers convincing reasons for depicting the religious future of the planet as a series of Main Events featuring Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and Muslims, surrounded by sideshows of only marginal significance from Buddhists, Hindus, evangelical Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox. As for modernist elements of Western Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, Jenkins obviously feels that they are drifting rapidly to the simply irrelevant.

In his description of likely future conflict, Jenkins carefully catalogues the many different possibilities for systemic violence between Muslims and Christians. These include situations where Muslims are a massive majority and construct hegemonic societies (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia); situations where large Muslim majorities must still confront smaller but long-standing Christian minorities (Indonesia, Egypt, Sudan); situations where Muslims and Christians are equally balanced and equally aggressive (Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia); situations where large Christian majorities face rising Muslim minorities (the Philippines, Uganda, Germany, France, Britain); situations where dominant Christian or secular majorities are interlaced with small but sometimes prosperous Muslim communities (the United States, Brazil, Mexico); and the situation of the former Soviet Union, where Christian minorities in the Muslim republics of south-central Asia may call upon Russia, with a slowly recovering Eastern Orthodox consciousness, to act on their behalf.

And there are many other thought-provoking opinions. Jenkins wonders, for example, if American standards of religious freedom and American separation of church and state may not be historical anomalies in the face of weightier traditions in the Southern hemisphere among both Muslims and Christians—traditions that treat society as an integrated whole requiring a high degree of religious uniformity. He explores provocatively the relative influence of Catholic-based liberation theology and Pentecostal-inspired evangelism in Latin America, and then suggests that Andrew Chesnut might have got it right: "the Catholic Church has chosen the poor, but the poor chose the Pentecostals." Finally, Jenkins pounds another nail into the coffin labeled "Christianity Defined as Western European Religion." However empirically absurd it has become, much received academic opinion still insists on ascribing Christian growth in the Two-Thirds World to the agency of American television evangelists, a manipulating Vatican, the cia, the U.S. military-industrial complex, Coca-Cola, or NestlÉ. While Western elements do take their place in the story Jenkins tells, he is entirely persuasive in arguing that non-Western Christianity must be defined first in non-Western terms.

In sum, if the times demand nothing less than a major rethinking of contemporary global history from a Christian perspective, Philip Jenkins's The Next Christendom will be one of the significant landmarks pointing the way.

1. As examples of a prodigious recent output, see Jenkins's Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001); and Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America (Yale Univ. Press, 1998).

2. For example, Dana Robert, "Shifting Southward: Global Christianity Since 1945," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2000, pp. 50-58.

Mark A. Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the editor of God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (Oxford Univ. Press) and the author of The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity (Eerdmans).

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