Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lost Christianity? Or Simply Ignored?

Philip Jenkins is a professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His 2002 publication of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity established him as something of an authority on the rise of evangelical Christianity in the Southern hemisphere. In recent years, any article that touched on the demographics of this phenomenon would invariably cite Jenkins. His current work, The Lost History of Christianity : The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia - and How It Died, may be something of a stretch, however. Jenkins penned an article, When Jesus Met Buddha, recently in The Boston Globe. If this article accurately represents the thrust of his latest book, then it would definitely be one to leave on the local bookstore shelf. From his website:

The Lost History of Christianity will change how we understand Christian and world history. Leading religion scholar Philip Jenkins reveals a vast Christian world to the east of the Roman Empire and how the earliest, most influential churches of the East—those that had the closest link to Jesus and the early church—died. In this paradigm-shifting book Jenkins recovers a lost history, showing how the center of Christianity for centuries used to be the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, extending as far as China. Without this lost history, we can’t understand Islam or the Middle East, especially Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Complete with maps, statistics, and fascinating stories and characters that no one in the media or the general public has ever heard of, The Lost History of Christianity will immerse the reader in a lost world that was once the heart of Christianity.

You mean there was Christianity in the East? Who knew? And someone needs to inform, I suppose, all those Syrian Orthodox, Maronite Catholics, Copts, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Assyrian, Thomasine Indian Christians et al that their Christianity is lost and--as Jenkins claims--dead. The fact that Jenkins, the media and/or the general public have never heard of these “fascinating stories and characters,” doesn’t mean that they were lost; ignored maybe by Western Europe, but hardly lost. If Jenkins is attempting to point out that Western Europe and the Americas have been Eurocentric in their religious orientation, then that is a valid, though hardly novel position. If, however, he is stating that the Christianity of the East were somehow “lost,” and now uncovered, then he is following a well-worn and delusional path. The irony here is that for all his outcry over Eurocentrism, Jenkins has his Western blinders firmly in place as he looks East. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a better example of overblown, relativistic sophistry than Jenkins’ piece in the Globe. He writes:

Most Christian churches hold that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and many also feel an obligation to carry that message to the world's unbelievers. But this creates a fundamental conflict with the followers of famous spiritual figures like Mohammed or Buddha, who preached radically different messages….Being intolerant of other religions - consigning them to hell, in fact - may be bad enough in its own right, but it increasingly has real-world consequences. As trade and technology shrink the globe, so different religions come into ever-closer contact with one another, and the results can be bloody: witness the apocalyptic assaults in Mumbai. In such a world, teaching different faiths to acknowledge one another's claims, to live peaceably together side by side, stops being a matter of good manners and becomes a prerequisite for human survival.

This is odd, don’t you think? Jenkins’ addresses Christianity, and is chock-full of Rodney-King-can’t-we-all-get-along admonitions to Christians. And yet the example he cites is Mumbai. Frankly, I see little evidence, world-wide, of Christians falling down in this “getting-along” business. Perhaps Jenkins would be better served offering this advice to readers in Cairo or Islamabad.

But this is only the beginning. Jenkins also chides the Catholic Church that has cracked down on thinkers who have made daring efforts to accommodate other world religions. This implies, of course, that those Roman Catholics who do not accommodate other world religions are not “thinkers.” He particularly notes the questioning of Georgetown University's Peter Phan, a Jesuit theologian whose main sin, in official eyes, has been to treat the Buddhism of his Vietnamese homeland as a parallel path to salvation. How dreadful--the Vatican expects Catholic theologians to be Catholic. What next? Even the Episcopal Church has given The Reverend Ann Holmes Redding until March 31, 2009 to recant her Muslim faith or be “de-frocked.” Jenkins continues:

Following the ideas of Pope Benedict XVI, though, the church refuses to give up its fundamental belief in the unique role of Christ.

This is a classic line. What? You mean Christians are required to believe in Christ? Is there no end to this insanity? Jenkins would have you believe that the non-thinking Catholics, with Pope Benedict XVI in the lead, are stubbornly holding to outdated beliefs in Christ’s divinity, stone-walling against the enlightened who seek to synthesize Christianity with other “great religions.” Actually, Benedict is saying nothing more than what the Apostles and bishops and priests and patriarchs and popes and all clergy and laity have been saying for nearly 2,000 years. Jenkins takes issue with the Pope, who says that we should hold conversations with other cultures, but not in a way that acknowledges other religions as equally valid. In fact, Jenkins maintains that there is another, ancient tradition, which suggests a very different course….These Christian bodies traced their ancestry back not through Rome, but directly to the original Jesus movement of ancient Palestine. They moved across India, Central Asia, and China, showing no hesitation to share - and learn from - the other great religions of the East.

When Jenkins characterizes the ancient church as the “Jesus Movement,” one can just picture these early hippy-dippy Jesus People spreading across the Orient, learning from “the other great religions of the East” as they went along their way. Is this the view one gets from reading the monastic writings of the early Desert Fathers out of Egypt or Palestine? Or the early Syriac Fathers? Or from St. Ephrem? From John Moschos? From St. Isaac the Syrian? From St. John of Damascus? If so, then I completely missed it. Christianity, whether East or West, did not “synthesize”—it transformed. There is, in fact, a religion that did do this--with Judaism, Christianity and Zoroasterism. We call it Islam.

Jenkins makes much of the stone carvings in southern India and coastal China that clearly show a cross, but one that is coming out of a lotus flower blossom, a symbol of Buddhist enlightenment. He finds this flower a parallel symbol with the cross. To Jenkins, this is proof-positive of the synthesizing of Christianity with Buddhist themes. And from this, he makes his great point: They…believed that both lotus and cross carried similar messages about the quest for light and salvation. If these Nazarenes could find meaning in the lotus-cross, then why can't modern Catholics, or other inheritors of the faith Jesus inspired? This illustrates nothing to me other than what Orthodox Christians already know: that Christianity sanctifies the culture in which it takes root, and some pagan customs take on Christian meaning.

Jenkins has a unique take on the spread of Eastern Christianity:
When we broaden our scope to look at the faith that by 800 or so stretched from Ireland to Korea, we see the many different ways in which Christians interacted with other believers, in encounters that reshaped both sides. At their best, these meetings allowed the traditions not just to exchange ideas but to intertwine in productive and enriching ways, in an awe-inspiring chapter of Christian history that the Western churches have all but forgotten…But in the early centuries other Christians expanded east into Asia and south into Africa, and those other churches survived for the first 1,200 years or so of Christian history. Far from being fringe sects, these forgotten churches were firmly rooted in the oldest traditions of the apostolic church….Throughout their history, these Nazarenes used Syriac, which is close to Jesus' own language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus. No other church - not Roman Catholics, not Eastern Orthodox - has a stronger claim to a direct inheritance from the earliest Jesus movement.

Jenkins is getting a bit ahead of himself, again. Several objections:

First, someone needs to inform the Eastern Christians of Africa and Asia that their churches died out 800 years ago…according to Jenkins.

Second, the fact that they used Syriac is not earth-shattering news here. They were Syrian. The Georgians used Georgian. The Armenians used Armenian. The Copts used Coptic.

Third—and this is really where I take strong exception with Jenkins—he claims for these particular Eastern Christians a stronger link to the Apostolic Faith than either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox enjoys. This is high-grade manure, indeed. Jenkins, in good old Western denominationalist fashion, draws sharp—and arbitrary--distinctions between Rome, Constantinople and the Christians of Mesopotamia. Broadly speaking, the Assyrians--the “Church of the East”--broke with Constantinople after the Council of Ephesus in 431. They have been dubbed as the “Nestorians,” though this is really a misnomer. And they haven't exactly died out--they were still quite numerous in Iraq PMA (Pre-Mission Accomplished). The “Oriental Orthodox Christians” broke with Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (again, broadly speaking). They are often called “Jacobites” or the “Suriani.” Yes, these early Christian churches argued over the nature of Christ (and poor communication and semantics) and divided, over time. Yet, they are Orthodox. Their original link to the earliest church is exactly the same as that of Constantinople and Rome—they had no particular unique insight on the early church that was not also available to their brethren around the shores of the Mediterranean. Today, there are close ties between Orthodoxy and the Oriental Orthodox, whether Coptic, Suriani or Armenian. Rome and the Assyrian Christians maintain close connections. This is no “lost Christianity.” I am currently reading The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. Technically speaking, St. Isaac was a “Nestorian.” Bishop Hilarion is Russian Orthodox. There is an icon of St. Isaac in our small church. For gifts to the 4 young people recently chrismated at our mission, I gave copies of The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephrem the Syrian, compiled by St. Theophan the Recluse. St. Ephrem was considered “Oriental Orthodox.” St. Theophan was Russian Orthodox. My point is that it is often hard to find daylight between the Orthodox Church and these Mesopotamian churches, and their writings have enriched the lives of Eastern Orthodox and other Christians all along. Lost? Hardly.

Finally, Jenkins’ continued annoying use of the term “Jesus Movement” actually discredits anything of substance he might have to say.

Jenkins does highlight the impressive spread of the Assyrian church into the far reaches of China. While not well-known, it is certainly not unknown among historians and theologians. In fact, it is one of the great "what-ifs" of history. The Monguls swept them away, as they did most everybody else in their path. Here Jenkins stretches again to make his point:

When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world.

Absolutely--as the hordes of Buddhist missionaries to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas testify.

Jenkins notes the high degree of collaboration between the "Nestorians" and Buddhists in the area of translations, even of the works of Buddha. This should come as no surprise. The Syrian Christians had translated the ancient classics from Greek to Syriac, and then from Syriac to Arabic for their overlords in Baghdad. It was this supposed "Islamic" scholarship that made its way to Europe by way of the Iberian invasion. Jenkins wonders about the conversations between the Nestorian monks and the Buddhist monks, with the Christians talking about atonement and the Buddhists asking about meditation. [It's a minor quibble, but illustrative of Jenkins' prism through which he views the East. The atonement theory of salvation is a well-known Western theological concept, but not terminology that would be used by the Orthodox. Nor is what the eastern Christian monks do considered "meditation," in the sense that Jenkins means it.]

Jenkins keeps returning to his lotus blossom motif.
The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For 2,000 years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures.
Jenkins admits that the Christian cross teaches a comparable lesson as well. Well, that is good to know--that the cross stacks-up well, relatively speaking, to the lotus blossom. It is this lotus blossom-cross that drives home the point Jenkins is making.
Somewhere in Asia, Yeshua's forgotten followers made the daring decision to integrate the two emblems, which still today forces us to think about the parallels between the kinds of liberation and redemption offered by each faith.
While this is certainly the language of a stereotypical American college professor, there is nothing demonstrably Christian in these words.

Jenkins closes with the following story, detailing a debate between a Nestorian bishop and a Muslim calip of Baghdad, circa 800.

Consider the story told by Timothy, a patriarch of the Nestorian church. Around 800, he engaged in a famous debate with the Muslim caliph in Baghdad, a discussion marked by reason and civility on both sides. Imagine, Timothy said, that we are all in a dark house, and someone throws a precious pearl in the midst of a pile of ordinary stones. Everyone scrabbles for the pearl, and some think they've found it, but nobody can be sure until day breaks.
In the same way, he said, the pearl of true faith and wisdom had fallen into the darkness of this transitory world; each faith believed that it alone had found the pearl. Yet all he could claim - and all the caliph could say in response - was that some faiths thought they had enough evidence to prove that they were indeed holding the real pearl, but the final truth would not be known in this world.

That is all lovely, and oh so au courant in its sentiments. But let Jenkins find an iman today who would agree to this clever little lesson.

If not written by Jenkins, the book would be taken no more seriously than the latest Da Vinci Code or Elaine Pagels nonsense, or Discovery Channel expose on some revelatory "secret" Gnostic text. But Jenkins has a bit of heft. The book will be well displayed in Barnes and Noble. Reviews will appear in the expected journals, and who knows, maybe even a Jenkins interview with Bill Moyers. If Jenkins were simply trying to shine a light on Asiatic and African Christianity, then that would be a noble effort indeed. To the extent that he enlightens Protestants, evangelicals and Catholics to a Christian narrative in which the developments of Western Europe play no role at all, then he has performed a valuable service. And while there may be some of this, he seems more intent on twisting the record into something it never was, to make a particular point he wants to apply to contemporary Christianity. For Jenkins has found the "key"--the synthesis exemplied by the lotus blossom--to what ails mainstream Western Christianity. In taking this tact, he joins a long line of deluded prophets. This is perhaps a strong condemnation of an unread book. But then, the author himself has told us what the book is about. I am just taking him at his word.


Steve Hayes said...

So it won't replace Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain as a means of enlightening Western Christians about non-Western Christianity?

John said...

Ha!-hardly. On a personal note, it was Dalrymple's book that inspired my travels in Anatolia and the Near East, and helped mightily in my journey to Orthodoxy. If--and this is a big IF--Jenkins' book compels American readers to look beyond their Protestant presuppositions, and contemplate the "other" Christianity, then I suppose it is a good thing. But these readers need to quickly move on to works of more substance. And while I don't want to purchase the book, I suppose I will have to read it at some point.

Jared Cramer said...

Yeah, sadly Jenkins' popularity with his thesis on the rise of third world evangelical Christianity has clearly moved him into the world of "pop-scholar" occupied by folks like Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.

I find it a little shocking that someone who has emphasized the importance of third world Christianity would make an argument that conflates the disappearance with religion with a Western-centric view of the world, i.e., it only disappeared if stuff only exists when the West is aware of it.

John said...

Good point, Jared. Bart Ehrman is the best example I know of this sort of thing,, the "pop-scholar," as you say. And in my post, where I wrote "Camille Paglia," I meant, of course "Elaine Pagels." This illustrates the perils of blogging in the wee hours, I suppose.

Ranger said...

what is it they say about people in ivory towers?

The Scylding said...

John - as Steve can agree to - the "Western" concept of the Third World, for instance, is so skewed it is just sad. Having grown up in the "Third World", it is a constant source of amusement/irritation to me. And the same with the distortions of Especially 19th and 20th Century evangelicalism. The way they have distorted the history, traditions and teachings of Christianity in toto is amazing - and I see that in the non-Evangelical Churches as well - in Rome, Constantinople, Canterbury and Wittenburg (so-to-speak). They distorted Christianity from the right, and these ivory tower experts did the saeem from the "left" - problem was, the accepted the tale that the "evangelicals" told. This brings me to another pet peeve - the term "Evangelical" was originally, in the West, broadly applied to Lutherans ONLY.

That is why it is such a major "revelation" to the evangelicals out there (and unfortunately, inside the church as well) that we Lutherans celebrate Saint's days, believe in the real presence, practice confession (not enough), and a host of other things - we don't disallow prayers to the saints. The sign of the cross is indicated in the liturgy. The liturgy itself, when properly followed, would sound partially familiar to Orthodox ears, for instance.

I'm off on major tangent here, but the complaint is the same. The know-nothingness, coupled with an amazing arrogance, in the "Evangelical" world, especially the English-speaking Evangelical world, has caused untold harm to the Church at large.

Milton Burton said...

Jenkins conveniently overlooks one telling incident I feel sure he is aware of: when the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion met about ten years ago in Canterbury the liberal bishops had a whole multicultural/multi-religionist agenda they planned to slither down everybody's throats. It was the Third World bishops (African & Asian) who blew this trendy little boat right out of the water.

John said...

Scylding, no worries--tangents are what we do best here. Your comments about the word "evangelical" are appropriate. I use the word in its general American parlance, which is to say, that I apply it much too broadly. Back when I was a member of the Churches of Christ, we would have never used the term to describe ourselves, but others would have naturally lumped us into that category. We tend to use the word to categorize any group that is not Catholic or in the traditional mainstream (think Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, etc.)

The danger to me, as an Orthodox convert, is to resist the temptation of thinking everything is "West=bad and East=good." As you have brought out, things do no always fall in such neat categories.

Steve Hayes said...

Pagels, however, seems to see things clearly where Jenkins does not. I think Pagels put it rather well when she said:

'Orthodox Christians were concerned - far more than gnostics
- with their relationships with other people. If gnostics insisted that humanity's original experience of evil involved internal emotional distress, the orthodox dissented. Recalling the story of Adam and Eve, they explained that humanity discovered evil in human violation of the natural order, itself essentially "good." The orthodox interpreted evil (kakia) primarily in terms of violence against others (thus giving the moral connotation of the term). They revised the Mosaic code, which prohibits physical violation of others - murder, stealing, adultery - in terms of Jesus' prohibitions against even mental and emotional violence - anger, lust, hatred.

Agreeing that human suffering derives from human guilt, orthodox Christians affirmed the natural order. Earth's plains, deserts, seas, mountains, stars and trees form an appropriate home for humanity. As part of that "good" creation, the orthodox recognised the processes of human biology: they tended to trust and affirm sexuality (at least in marriage), procreation and human development. The orthodox Christian saw Christ not as one who leads souls out of this world into enlightenment, but as "fullness of God" come down into human experience - into bodily experience - to sacralize

And as we approach the feast of the Nativity, that's a fairly good meditation on incarnation -- Cur Deus homo.

Tomasz said...

America is not part of the West. It is America. In the West, in continental Europe with the exception of the Germanic lands, there was one religion - the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Faith. America is not the West. Mexico is the West but American civilisation resembles more China or India than Italy and Frnace. Also I question on how much England is part of the West. Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe, the Faith is Catholic, Europe is Catholic. There is no such thing as a Europe that is not Catholic-Orthodox. Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles are Asian, more like Turks than Romans. Wakeup Anglo-Saxons, you are not the West, you were 500 years ago but now you are not. Awake, o Anglo-Saxons!

John said...

Thanks, Tomasz for your comments, though I find it hard to agree with them. While America is indeed unique, it is absolutely part of "the West," and I don't mean this in any sort of defensive, knee-jerk sort of way--my main complaints with American culture have to do with our slant on this very same Western culture. From you comments, I infer that you describe "the West" as being Catholic Europe, which would exclude Scandanavia, much of Germany, England, and by extension, America. I am certainly no fan of the Reformation and the religious confusion and loss of faith it has wrought, but to conclude Protestant Europe to be no longer European is more than a little extreme. You claim Mexico is the West, but America isn't. This is interesting--here again, I am assuming you are basing this on the Catholicism of the 2 societies. If America is not yet a majority Catholic nation, it is well on its way to becoming one. Catholics already far outnumber the next nearest religious group-the Southern Baptists. You also claim that we are more like India and China than France and Italy, and that Protestant Europeans are more like Turks than Romans! I would be interested to know exactly, how? I know more Turks than I do Italians, so I do not necessarily consider that a slam.

I do agree with your H. Belloc quote: "Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe." A Europe set adrift from its Christian moorings, will in time cease to be Europe. But, you sound a cal for the "Anglo-Saxons," (meaning Protestants) to awake. Sadly, from what I read and have observed first hand, Catholic Europe (France, Italy, Spain) is every bit as aslumber as the rest.