Friday, December 22, 2006

Spengler on Jenkins and Global Christianity

Recently, I have caught up on my Spengler. His regular columns in the Asia Times , unfailingly insightful, are collected here. I took particular interest in his review of The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South by Philip Jenkins. The work, which charts the shifting locus of Christianity from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, has been generally well-received, and for the most part, Spengler concurs with the consensus. He finds it "indispensible not only for its understanding of global change, but also for its understanding of what Christianity implies." Indeed, Spengler concludes that the "new book is a source of astonishment. One cannot quite make sense of today's world without it."

Spengler does level some criticism at Jenkins, finding him a much better demographer than theologian, whose work sometimes "maddens as much as it informs." For instance, the author views the general uncertainly of life in Africa as the major factor in the explosive growth of sub-Sarahan Christianity. Spengler argues that life in Africa has always been fragile, and even in the face of the AIDS epidemic, the drastic reduction in child mortality has in fact, made life more certain than before.

Also, Spengler faults Jenkins when comparing Christianity and Islam. Most irksome among Jenkins' omissions is a failure to explain the often brutal antagonism between Christianity and Islam throughout Africa. Where he compares the two religions, Jenkins invariably sees common features rather than fundamental differences - yet the vast amounts of Christian blood shed by African Muslims suggest that a great gulf is fixed between the two faiths. Jenkins notes that Christianity is winning the battle for souls in sub-Saharan Africa, but even so, is at a loss to explain why. Here Jenkins is no help at all. In matters of theology and religious practice, he calls attention only to similarities between Islam and Christianity.

Jenkins infers that Africans feel an instinctive cultural affinity with the Old Testament, with its stories of nomadism and polygamy. Spengler dismisses this as so much condescension, indeed the same attitude taken by America's liberal elite towards African fundamentalism (witness mainstream Episcopal hand-wringing over Archbishop Akinola).

Spengler sees other factors as work. First, a more convincing explanation of African identification with the Old Testament is that African Christians identify with ancient Israel because they desire to become part of the People of God, as tribal society disintegrates.

He also credits the role of American evangelical missionaries. US evangelical Christianity…is …unique in its identification with Israel, for Americans selected themselves out from among the nations, and crossed the oceans to come to a New Land in emulation of the Tribes of Israel crossing the Jordan into Canaan. Evangelical Christianity centers on the rebirth of the individual out of his sinful, Gentile origin into Israel, into the People of God, by the miracle of Christ's blood.…Appropriately, American evangelical religion, with its central notion of being saved in the blood, has exercised immense appeal in modern Africa. Even here, however, Spengler believes Jenkins does not follow through fully with his premise. The reason that blood is so important to Christianity (and not just evangelical Christianity) is that the Christian undergoes a change of ethnicity. As Africa emerges from tribalism - if it is to emerge at all - this is decisive. It is the Gentile flesh that is sinful by its nature, and to overcome sin and gain the Kingdom of God, the Christian must be reborn into a new flesh, the flesh of Israel. The blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ is what makes that possible.

Yet, in the end, Spengler finds this to be a seminal work. Some choice Spengler quotes, as follows:

Westerners have spent the past 400 years in a grand effort to make the world seem orderly and reasonable without, however, quite suppressing the strangeness and wonder of life. Now come the new Christians of the Southern Hemisphere, who confound enlightened Western prejudice. The Bible, and above all the Hebrew Bible, speaks immediately to the new Christians of the global South ...unlike the complacent and secure Euro-American Christians who find disturbing the actual Bible of blood and redemption. Southern Christians will dominate the religion within a generation or two and, if Jenkins is right, will bring it closer to its original purpose and character. Southern Christians hold to biblical authority not because they are backward, but because they have embraced the Bible for what it really is. Euro-American Christians who interpret Scripture to suit their evolved cultural tastes are soon-to-be-ex-Christians.

The conclusion suggested by Jenkins' report is that the people of the Southern Hemisphere increasingly are willing to substitute a universal Christian identity for their ethnic or tribal identity, choosing Christianity over Islam. If that is correct, we are witness to one of the most remarkable things to happen in world history.

1 comment:

John said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia. Please check out these references on the origins & consequences of the universal insanity.
5. Chapter 14 Realisation & Belief