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The Christian Future

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Philip Jenkins.
The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.
Oxford University Press. 304 pages. $28.00

In the summer of 1998, the Lambeth Conference of the world’s Anglican bishops met to consider a resolution on homosexuality and Christian ministry. The English bishops, along with their colleagues in the Anglo-Saxon diaspora, had been ordaining active homosexuals to the priesthood for years, and they took a predictably progressive stance on the matter. But when it came to a vote, the conference ignored their proposals and passed a resolution condemning homosexuality and declaring it incompatible with Christian ministry. The international voting body of the “Church of England,” it turned out, was now dominated by conservative bishops from Africa and East Asia.

The reaction of the Western prelates to this traditionalist uprising was a mixture of condescension and outrage, exemplified by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, a liberal clergyman famous for arguing that Christianity must “change or die” to meet the realities of the modern world. Spong complained that the African bishops had “moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity.” He added, “I never expected to see the Anglican Communion, which prides itself on the place of reason in faith, descend to this level of irrational Pentecostal hysteria.”

The story of the Lambeth fracas is one of the better anecdotes adorning Philip Jenkins’s admirable and timely new book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. At a moment when public attention is focused on the conflict between militant Islam and a largely post-Christian West, Jenkins reminds us that over the past century Christianity has expanded, quietly but dramatically, all across the Third World, becoming a truly global religion. This expansion, joined to the gradual withering of the faith in its traditional European enclaves, means that the long-term association of Christianity with “the West” is drawing to a close. In the future, Christianity may be better understood as the dominant religion of the global South.

The numbers that Jenkins cites are remarkable. Of the roughly 2 billion Christians worldwide, Europe still claims a plurality, with 560 million believers — although that number includes many who are counted as Christian only on the baptismal rolls of their emptying churches. If present trends continue, by 2025 there will be 633 million Christians in Africa, 640 million in South America, and 460 million in Asia; Europe’s numbers will have remained constant, leaving it at third place among the continents and falling. By 2050, to extrapolate further, only a fifth of the world’s Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. As Jenkins puts it, quoting a Kenyan scholar, “the centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila.”

Remarkable as this shift may be, more remarkable is the fact that it has come about largely in the past century, and even in the past 50 years. In Africa alone, the number of Christians has grown from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million today. In Korea, there were just 330,000 Christians at the turn of the century; in today’s South Korea, the number is 12 million, roughly a fourth of the total population. In China, Christian missionaries made little or no headway throughout the nineteenth century, but since the communists took power and began to persecute religious groups, the church has flourished. Today, there are tens of millions of Christians in China, and their numbers are growing dramatically every year.

This “global Christianity” threatens to shatter the illusions of the post-Enlightenment intelligentsia, which has assumed for generations that Christianity will either disappear entirely or gradually accommodate its teachings to the spirit of the modern age. The Lambeth Conference is just one example of how this theory has foundered on global Christianity’s moral and theological traditionalism. The church in the Third World has thrived demographically despite brooking no compromise on issues like homosexuality, the ordination of women, the acceptance of divorce, and the tolerance of abortion — practices that many in the West have either advocated or tacitly accepted.

It has thrived, too, while defying the assumption that modernity would eventually purge the mystical from Christian belief, leaving only the rational and ethical elements of the faith. Global Christianity is heavily influenced by the charismatic, supernaturalist Pentecostal movement and tends to eschew the formalism of old-line Western churches, emphasizing instead emotion-drenched worship, public prayer, mystical healings, and exorcisms. This is true of the mammoth independent congregations that have sprung up across Africa and South America — but it is also true among the Third World branches of traditional Christian denominations. In Roman Catholicism, for instance, the shortage of priests and the need to compete with Pentecostalism have led to the creation of huge, lay-led charismatic movements — groups like El Shaddai in the Philippines, which boasts 7 million members across the island nation and holds mass meetings that, Jenkins remarks, “look like nothing so much as a 1960s rock festival.”

Reviewing its profusion of sects, its tendency toward syncretism, its avowed supernaturalism, and its apocalyptic flavor, Jenkins argues that Southern Christianity strongly resembles the early church in the Roman Empire. In ancient Rome, as in modern Africa and Latin America, Christianity was an urban religion, emphasizing the blessedness of poverty, the power of prayer and miracles, and the imminence of the eschaton. As Jenkins writes, “for Southern Christians, and not only for Pentecostals, the apostolic world as described in the New Testament is not just a historical account . . . but an ever-present reality open to any modern believer, and that includes the whole culture of signs and wonders.”

This contrasts strikingly with Western churches, where the New Testament accounts of miracles and divine intervention belong either to a vanished past or to the world of myth and legend. To quote a follower of one of the new mass African movements: “When we were in the synagogues [the European churches] we used to read about the works of Jesus Christ . . . cripples were made to walk and the dead were brought to life . . . evil spirits driven out. . . . We Africans, however, who were being instructed by white people, never did anything like that.” Now they do.

This revival of the early church’s spirit is remarkable, but more remarkable still is the extent to which it has been ignored in the West. Many do not even know that these Christians exist, at least in such numbers — and why should they, when the media’s vision casts Islam as the defining religion of the developing world? Many more, like Bishop Spong, are somehow embarrassed by the fervor and traditionalism of Third World Christians; or worse, they are embarrassed by their very existence, which is after all the fruit of Western colonialism, missionary zeal, and other assorted evils of our less enlightened past.

Whatever the reason, Westerners have failed to come to terms with what may be the defining religious development of the next century. This failure is a practical one — Western denominations are ignoring fertile fields for gaining new members, and the Catholic Church, as Jenkins points out, is foolishly importing Third World priests (priests desperately needed in their home countries) to meet the needs of Europe and America. But it is also a moral failure. “When Jesus told the ‘poor’ they were blessed,” Jenkins notes, in a rare burst of fervor, “the word used does not imply relative deprivation, it means total poverty, or destitution. The great majority of Southern Christians (and increasingly, of all Christians) really are the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, even the dehumanized. . . . When American Christians see the images of starvation from Africa . . . very few realize that the victims share not just a common humanity, but in many cases the same religion. Those are Christians starving to death.”

 

Still, whether the dwindling Western Christians notice or not, the age of global Christianity is upon us, with sweeping sociopolitical consequences. The most obvious will be a revival of the long-running duel between Christianity and Islam — with fault lines not in Spain and the Balkans, but in the African savannah and the Indonesian rainforests. This battle has already begun in the long-simmering civil wars that plague Sudan and Nigeria, where Islamic attempts to impose shari’a have met with Christian resistance — or in the southern Philippines, where Muslim rebels like Abu Sayyaf make war against the Christian majority.

Jenkins argues that such fault-line conflicts will proliferate throughout the next century. In this, he consciously echoes Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, envisioning regional wars driven by religious differences, with alliances forming and conflicts spreading as Christians and Muslims come to the aid of their coreligionists. He imagines an African clash between an Islamic Nigeria and a Christian alliance of Uganda and Congo, for instance, sparked by religious strife in a smaller nation like Cameroon. Jenkins also foresees a war between the Catholic Philippines and Muslim Indonesia, fueled by each nation’s persecution of its religious minorities.

Taken so far, Jenkins’s account is plausible. But he goes further, as the book’s title implies, envisioning a kind of recreation of Christendom, that nebulous, high medieval idea of a supranational religio-political communion. After all, if Third World Christianity resembles the early church today, then shouldn’t it resemble the medieval church tomorrow? In the political wreckage of post-colonial Africa and Latin America, Jenkins sees “eerie parallels” to the chaos that followed the fall of Rome, when the moral authority and social capital offered by the church lent it power and influence that dwarfed that of any secular warlord. From these seeds, he imagines a new Res Publica Christiana emerging in South America and Africa, just as the first sprang up in barbarian-ruined Europe.

This sort of historical analysis is seductive but unconvincing. Religion and politics will doubtless be increasingly mixed across the global South in ways that would make any Western liberal uneasy, but there are seemingly insuperable obstacles to the South’s widespread religiosity being transformed into “a true overarching unity and focus of loyalty” such as existed in the high Middle Ages.

To begin with, as Jenkins admits, the two regions that might join in such a unity — Africa and South America — are geographically divided and culturally disconnected. And even within the two continents (especially as South America has become partially Protestantized), a “lack of a common identity” is a defining characteristic of the new Third World church.

Again and again, Jenkins’s book shows how individual mass movements, mega-churches, and charismatic sects form the lifeblood of Southern Christianity. By contrast, what characterized Christendom was unity, under the authority of the papacy — and while it expired from many illnesses, Christendom’s demise began when that unity was broken in the strife of the Protestant Reformation. Admittedly, today’s Catholic Church is powerful in Asia and Africa, but the overall spirit of Third World Christianity, with its emphasis on personal revelation and its bewildering array of sects and splinter groups, seems determinedly Protestant.

Jenkins might counter that the early Church was similarly disunited, filled with sects and splinter groups and heresies, much as Third World “Christendom” is today. But disunited as they were, the early Christians were subjects of a single empire, and while Rome was decaying apace, it nevertheless played a crucial role in uniting the warring factions of the early church. The crucial, orthodoxy-establishing councils, like Nicaea and Chalcedon, were called into being by the muscle of the emperor — and the pope derived much of his authority from the fact that his see lay in the same eternal city where emperors had ruled for centuries. Indeed, early Christian writers like Augustine often cited Rome’s world-spanning empire as a sign of God’s hand in history, since it served as a vessel for the establishment of a new, Christian order.

In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, no comparable political structure exists. The old colonial empires, which Jenkins cites as parallels to Rome, fell before the current religious awakening, and their vanished political structures can provide no assistance in uniting the bewildering array of Christian sects. Imagine if Rome had collapsed in the third century A.D., before Constantine converted and the Nicene Creed was hammered out. Does anyone believe that medieval Christendom would have been as united as it came to be?

Still more strained is Jenkins’s suggestion that, under this new Christendom, Christianity might become the next Islam — that the West will vanquish the spirit of jihad only to face a new crusade. The Islamist war against modernity, while it shares some rhetoric with Christian critiques of secular decadence (just ask Jerry Falwell), remains the fruit of an historical experience that simply does not exist in the Christian South. There is no tradition of a glorious Christian past in Latin America or Africa, no vanished caliphate and no memory of the Crusades, and there are no Christian holy places that could be desecrated by the nearby presence of American soldiers. Perhaps most important, Christianity, even at its most overtly political, lacks the idea of a shari’a and a necessary church-state fusion of the sort that animates so many Islamist movements.

 

This is not to say that both a new Christendom and a new crusade are not possible. As Jenkins says, repeatedly and wisely, the religious future is wildly unpredictable. But it seems far more likely that Southern Christians will fight secularism through suasion, not force, uniting with conservative Western Christians in an effort to re-evangelize the former heartland of the faith. Jenkins cites the recent example of traditionalist Episcopalians flouting their liberal leaders and placing themselves under the aegis of conservative African bishops, and he notes that many African churches now send missionaries to Europe and the United States. Such alliances between Western traditionalists and Third World evangelists are likely to become commonplace as Southern Christians rise to dominate the global church.

Against this trend, secularists and liberal Christians will place their hopes for the triumph of a more Spong-like Christianity in the ongoing modernization of the South, which — barring global catastrophe — will slowly bring Africa and Latin America the rising incomes and political and social freedoms that have, according to some theories, caused the secularization of once-devout Europe.

If that happens, we will finally discover whether modernity is compatible with Christianity, and with religion in general. The experience of Europe suggests that it is not. On what was once the most Christian continent, wealth, political security, and a common currency have managed to fulfill — or at least to muffle — the spiritual yearnings that humanity has always harbored.

Europe is not the world, however, and elsewhere the religious fervor of prosperous Americans and East Asians offers a different model of the modern soul. If Southern Christians follow their lead, they will enter a modernity in which the end of history need not mean the end of belief.