Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book 41: The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins

Title: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins

Pages: 316

How it was obtained: Christmas present from Rob and Kathy, my in-laws.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 20 months.

Days spent reading it: 5 days.

Why I read it: I read the first chapter while I was in seminary for a class. This book had a lot of "chatter" around it, so I decided I had better pick it up and read it.

Brief review: In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins gives us a ground-breaking book that will be talked about for years to come. His basic premise is simply this: The heart of Christendom has shifted from the "Northern" hemisphere (think North America and Europe) to the "Southern" hemisphere (think, Africa, Asia, and South America). What is so shocking about this premise is that the Northern hemisphere not only did not see the shift, but we are still in basic denial of the shift. I mean think about it. Picture in your mind, right now, the typical Christian. You're answer is probably something like this: a white middle class male American (or maybe a European male). That answer is wrong, wrong, wrong. Demographically the typical Christian is a lower class, African (or Asian or Latin American) woman living in a village. She is might be from Nigeria (or Korea, etc. etc.). The numbers are there: Christendom in the Global South has re-emerged and is ascending once again as the heart of Christendom. The power shift and especially economic shift have not followed suit yet, but rest assured, they will.

What I loved about this book was Jenkins process. He's a historian and a scholar, so the first few chapters have a ton of statistics. As soon as I'm thinking, "Hey, I wonder who he is including in this 'Christian' number," he has a chapter dedicated to who is included (almost anyone who self-proclaims to be a Christian). Even if I disagree with what numbers he chooses, I recognize the position he is put in as a historian and respect his decisions and thank him for explaining his method.

There are some fantastic issues raised in this book. Jenkins talks about the differences that are expressed in the Global South (by which he means mainly Africa, Asia, and Latin America). As soon as one begins to think, "gee that sounds strange and perhaps syncretistic," Jenkins has a chapter on the idea of cultural adaptation and syncretism. One area that I think Jenkins considered cultural adaptation that I would consider syncretism is in the area of ancestor worship. He never outright said it was good, but he certainly talked about the advantages that were lost to Christianity when the Church ruthlessly refused to accept these practices. But, in general, Jenkins made me think and probe and re-evaluate what I should consider an acceptable cultural adaptation. It is SO difficult to think about Christianity being expressed in a different way from current Western practices. But I accept that it can and should be expressed differently in different cultures. I just fear (like many) the end result down the road. I think all Westerners do. But we have to admit, how we express ourselves today is not how the 1st century church expressed itself. Christianity can change its forms without changing the message.

In addition to these issues, Jenkins also compiles a short history of Christianity in modern Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These chapters give hope to those who are afraid to let go of the controlling grip of Western dominance. Jenkins shows that the views of the Global South will be more traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural than the North. As a case study he simply uses homosexual ordination. While American and European thinkers are crying out for sexual freedom, our Southern counterparts are staunchly opposed. And they are beginning to work together to block homosexual ordination. Interestingly, in some denominations (like the Episcopalians in the USA), individual conservative churches are fleeing their "liberal" overseers and seeking to be led by Archbishops from Africa and Asia. It seems the guardians of the faith are in the South.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the changing face of Global Christianity. It is clear that a watershed event has occurred, and we are just now becoming aware of this change. Also, this is a great resource for missionaries working in these areas. Jenkins has numerous and insightful discussions about what the demographic shift means for Christians who live in or near Muslim nations (which is especially pertinent to Africa and Asia). Jenkins' observations are a welcome check to those who think that Islam is the only global religion that is growing. (See his other work, God's Continent, for more information about Christianity and Islam in Europe and America. I reviewed it here, it was Book #5 on my Challenge List). I would also recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a history of Christianity, outside of the West, over the last hundred years or so.

I thought this book might be difficult to read, but it was not too bad. The first few chapters are statistically heavy, but that dwindles as the book continues from statistics to analysis, narrative, and application of the information. I am sure this book will be used in colleges and seminaries for the next decade. It actually surprises me that it was not immediately made required reading when I was in Seminary—the observations Jenkins makes are that important. Definitely worth reading.

Favorite quote: "If the church had to choose whether to appeal to the Catholics of Brazil or Belgium, of the Congo or France, then on every occasion, simple self-interest would persuade them to favor the burgeoning Southern community. Of course the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are so conservative: they can count.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Global.

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