World Christianity 06:Poor and Rich

Continuing discussion of Philip Jenkins’ fascinating book, The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South.

Chapter 4 is ‘Poor and Rich’. Lots of good stuff here and I want to take a second post to come back to the issue of the Prosperity Gospel that comes up in this chapter.

As the gravity of world Christianity ‘goes south’ literally so does the income of the average Christian metaphorically. That person is likely to be someone like a brown-skinned woman living in a shanty town outside a mega-city. Global South Christians also tend to be minorities. Both of these realities mean the Bible is read very differently than in the West.

Jenkins has said elsewhere ‘the Bible is written by and for a poor community’. It speaks right into cultures that are full of famine, plague, war, poverty, exile, disease, familiarity with death, peasants, powerlessness, imperial forces, religious cultures and so on.This chapter discusses examples of these themes and how the Bible is seen to speak right into such contexts.

An example

‘Guatemala certainly feels biblical. Sheep, swine, donkeys, serpents – these are everywhere, as are centurions, all manner of wandering false prophets, Pharisees, lepers, and whores. The poor, rural, mainly Mayan landscape has an aura of the miraculous … [It] is the perfect backdrop for religious parables about fields, both barren and fertile, fruits and harvests, hunger and plenty.’ Francisco Goldman quoted on p.69

Across much of Africa there is all too much familiarity with travelers being likely to be robbed and left for dead; of little law and order or hope of justice; of streets teeming with the sick; of understanding a story of a poor woman desperately searching for a tiny sum of money to allow her children to eat that day; of the life & death importance of harvest.

How do you read this text? ‘Those that sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping carrying seed to sow will return with songs of joy carrying sheaves with him’ [Psalm 126]

Why are the sowers weeping? Talk with Africans and the answer becomes obvious. The sowers are sowing in famine and resisting the temptation to use the seed to feed their children. If they did so they would have no harvest and death would follow. So they sow not knowing if they are going to survive. Tears are shed over the seed sown. And so deep is the joy when the harvest comes in and their future is assured for another year.

We Westerners ask with little thought that the Lord would ‘give us this day our daily bread’. In the Bible and in many parts of the world today this prayer has vital significance.

A big theme of this chapter is how our context shapes our Bible reading. And how more difficult it is for the ‘rich’ Westerner to ‘hear’ the text, especially in terms of how centrally and powerfully that text addressess issues of justice, famine, exile, insecurity, debt and the transience of life.

For me, Jesus’ story of the rich man, a camel, an eye of a needle and the kingdom of God come to mind after reading this chapter.

What is it about our Western context that distances us both the the world and the message of Scripture? How can overcome the distance and ‘hear’ the text more clearly?


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