Phil Jenkins on Believing the Bible in the Global South


Growing up in Birmingham, Ala. diversity was never a favored topic, unless one was slamming those who believed in such a thing. Yet somehow in this city where xenophobic tendencies reigned, two African men found there way into leadership at my church. Brother Emmanuel and Dr Joe with their ready smiles and quick wits soon become fixtures in my often monochromatic world. I played soccer for Emmanuel and simply played with Dr. Joe’s sons Nana and Bobo. As I got to know these men, and their families I was amazed at the differences they brought to this same faith I was learning to follow. As I grew older I began reading more and more widely. On “mission trips” to the South I learned more about God than I taught. As I entered college I found reading by the liberation theologians of Latin America, and writings of modern missionaries such as C. Peter Wagner who were forever changed by their experiences in the “mission fields” of the so-called third world countries. “What was going on down there,” I often asked myself, and if something truly was going on what could I learn from it? These questions often led to re-evaluations of the faith, and I believe have greatly benefited my outlook on life and the faith.

Something was and is going on in these often overlooked countries and Phillip Jenkins’ book The New Faces of Christianity is to be commended for trying to gain a handle on it. After having read his first book on the topic (The Next Christendom), I am grateful that he has taken another shot at understanding the growth going on in these lands. It must be said that what Jenkins is attempting to do in his books is not present an in-depth, color commentary on the issues and situations. He is rather attempting to take a variety of snapshots at the faith as practiced in these regions. The idea being that once this discussion has been brought to the public’s attention, broad areas of agreement and categorization established so that others might come in and take smaller, more focused looks at the on-the-ground issues; as well as, learn about these regions by analyzing and debating his general assumptions.

This approach has much to commend for it, but also leaves room for some criticisms of this book. An often cited criticism of Jenkins book might be that he has missed many nuances, and in doing so can misrepresent or misunderstand what is going on. Jenkins, himself, would probably argue that this type of criticism misses the point of his book, and this very argument of missed nuances is actually what he is trying to accomplish with his book. That being said Jenkins aptly demonstrates within the text his understanding that there are nuances here that flavor the details. One would need to keep these provisos in mind as they attempt to understand his general discussions. Jenkins argues that neither the more established Western Christianity, nor the developing Global South is monolithic in nature. There are beliefs that are shared. There are pockets and groups in the West that would be remarkably at home in the writings and teachings of the South. Likewise there are those in the South who sound very much like their Western brothers. To say that the South is entirely conservative in its theology and the West liberal is a vast overstatement.[1] Likewise it would be an overstatement to state that the South is overtly charismatic and Pentecostal in practice. Jenkins points out that several supposed links to this tradition could be explained not so much by influence from Western Pentecostalism; so much as, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and the emotional referents from the local cultures. For instance Jenkins points to the much-debated influence of Korean shamanism on the Korean church as an example of this occurrence.[2] To say that the South is more pentecostal than the West also misses the point. In order to properly understand Jenkins’ book and Christianity in the Global South, one must keep these qualifications in mind.

With this in mind, Jenkins’ central generalizations about the Christian face of the South can be clearly seen. Jenkins writes that there is a general consensus in themes addressed in the South.

“These include a much greater respect for the authority of scripture, especially in matters of morality; a willingness to accept the Bible as an inspired text and a tendency to literalism; a special interest in supernatural elements of scripture, such as miracles, visions, and healings; a belief in the continuing power of prophecy; and a veneration for the Old Testament, which is considered as authoritative as the New.”[3]

One could make the argument that the biggest “differences” come in how the Bible is read, understood, and acted upon in the Global South.

Jenkins spends several of his initial chapters discussing these differences in how the Bible is read and understood. The later chapters, then, build upon this fresh understanding and how it works itself out in the practice of the church and its members. Of no little importance for understanding the scripture has been its translation into the native languages. One can make a comparison between the growth of Christianity in the South with the ever present growth of Islam in the same areas. Jenkins writes that “Muslim converts worldwide are offered the opportunity to share equal participation in the glorious history and culture of Islam… Christians, meanwhile, with the Bible in their own tongue, can claim not just the biblical story, but their own culture and lore in addition.”[4] This understanding of the scripture opens up two important facets of reading and understanding the scripture. First, the scripture is understood not just in an individualistic sense, but also as a part of the community at large. In this ways many passages of scripture come alive within the Global South. Scripture is given a liturgical importance that despite the Protestant West’s assertion of biblical supremacy is missed. Scripture becomes the dominant source of story, metaphor, and comparison within the Global South.[5]

Secondly, much of the understanding of scripture is story-driven, and context focused. Knowledge of scripture is defined in these terms that many preachers can attack the social and governmental constructs simply by reading select passages. One of the main ways in which scripture can be used as a weapon against the cultural context is through the use of motifs. Just as the North American slaves and their free descendants would use the book of Exodus to form a way of talking about life. Their African brothers and sisters have done the same thing. Much of the liberation theologies can be traced to this same motif. Stories from other portions of the Old Testament resound in the Southern experience.[6] Jenkins quotes a Malawian pastor to good effect: “Listen to me brother. You must have time to ponder upon this book. You must read it when you wake up in the morning, when you go to bed in the evening… There are good stories in this book. There are stories of salvation.”[7]

With such a movement away from individual, unconnected stories to an understanding of the Bible as something intimately connected to one’s life, Christians within the Global South see themselves within the stories, and also see themselves as the logical descendents of the people within these stories. There is as described above an intimate connection to the Old Testament. In such there is a sense in which the Global South then can view themselves in the terms of a new Israel enacting God’s covenants in the world. In this light there is an on-going flirtation with that which the West denigrates as the prosperity doctrine, or the “health and wealth” gospel. Jenkins defines this doctrine as “the controversial belief that Christians have the right and duty to seek prosperity in this world, to obtain health and wealth here and now.”[8] A sympathetic reading of the Old Testament would cause anyone to see how a natural connection is made between the blessings of God, and material well-being. Despite some spiritualizing of these concerns in the New Testament, the idea that God has come to bless his children can be seen as inherent message of the Bible. In the negative teachers, then, refer to poverty and sickness as “curses to be ended by faith, and ended soon.” In a positive development, many teachers seek to discuss the blessings of God in a pietistic sense. As one bishop states, “this anointing is not given just so you can fed your family- it is to make you a blessing to the world.”[9]

There are also connections made with the New Testament. Jenkins quotes Shona prophet Johane Masowe, “When we were in the synagogues [the European churches] we used to read about the works of Christ… cripples were made to walk and the dead brought to life… We Africans, however, who were being instructed by white people never, did anything like that… We were taught to read the Bible, but we ourselves never did what the people of the Bible used to do.”[10] In the stories of the life of Christ and in Acts the people of the South see a God that is determined to deliver them from all the evils of the world. In this way the members of Global South can look like their Pentecostal brothers and sisters in the West. There has undoubtedly been some cross-fertilization between the two, but Jenkins shows how much of the emphasis on similar ecstatic experiences can be traced to attempts to move between the New Testament, current experience, as meditated by cultural backgrounds. Regardless of which came first the chicken or the egg, there is undeniably a very real attempt to see the power of the Gospel invade their daily lives in every sense of that expression.

Jenkins writes at the beginning of his book that this “new Christianity will push theologians to address the faith to poverty and social injustice; to political violence, corruption, and the meltdown of law and order; and to Christianity’s witness amidst religious plurality.”[11] While one could quibble over Jenkins’ insistence that this is a new form of Christianity,[12] I agree with Jenkins assertion that the Global South presents an important challenge to those of us in the Western church. We can learn from them, and learn we must. This difference in the understanding of Scripture is one of vital importance, and as we sit in conversation with them, I hope that we can learn to see scripture in “new” ways. However as this conversation continues one cannot help but think there is some things that we in the West can teach. Jenkins has done a good job in looking at some of the more problematic areas of the Global South. As a Western evangelical I harbor suspicions (rightly or wrongly) about some of the more virulent forms of the prosperity Gospel, as well as, concerns about how some of the shamanistic tendencies and pagan tendencies are worked into the growing faith. All in all, I think Jenkins presents us with a broad picture of this emerging stream of Christianity. I can only hope that it continues to grow and continues to challenge not only its inhabitants, but those of us in the West.

 

 


[1] Jenkins, 6.

[2] Jenkins, 101. It is interesting to note that Jenkins is not alone in this point. Much the same argument has been made in Harvey Cox’s work on Pentecostalism Fire from Heaven, as well as in a journal article from

[3] Jenkins, 4.

[4] Jenkins, 25.

[5] An example of this can be found on pages 72-73.

[6] An example of this can be found on page 144.

[7] Jenkins, 31.

[8] Jenkins, 90.

[9] Jenkins, 95.

[10] Jenkins, 64.

[11] Jenkins, 5.

[12] I am not sure that Andrew Walls would agree, and like Walls, I am inclined to view the expressions of faith in the Global South as a renewal of second and third century Christianity.

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