World Christianity 11: reading the Bible North and South

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

The final chapter, chapter 8, is ‘North and South’

Throughout this book we’ve seen how the Bible seems to speak freshly and powerfully to many Global South churches since it addresses directly many strands of real life that are not part of Northern experience:

– discerning between true and false prophets

– food and famine and harvest

– water and thirst

– spiritual wealth and poverty

– spiritual warfare

– suffering and persecution, including by a dictatorial unjust state.

– the marginalisation and disempowerment of women

And this context means books of the Bible take on a whole new hue. James is a prime example. If your life is likely short and perilous, a vapour, how will that shape how you live? Where how widows are treated is a matter of life and death. Where the rich are warned against and prayers for healing accompanied by annointing are prescribed. Indeed there is no issue that more starkly divides North and South than that of healing.

This all raises some interesting questions:

1. Stereotyping grossly, can it be said that the decaying, secular, disbelieving churches of the North are dying, and the believing, authentic, expanding churches of the global South are being blessed by God with growth. Is it a case that the Lord resists the proud and exalts the humble?

Jenkins provocatively puts a slightly different question this way

Is the traditional, biblically orientated Christianity, evangelical or otherwise, destined to disappear with economic growth and maturation? Briefly, is there an equation between Christianity and development?

In other words, has the West ‘outgrown’ Christianity? Is this evidence in support of the secularisation thesis that says that poorer countries are more religious and vice versa?

He answers this question with a NO. The secularisation thesis is less and less accepted today and does not hold up – Christianity is strong in the USA and in many better off parts of the global south.

Yet, it may well be IMHO, that indeed God is blessing the ‘foolish’ things of this world (the powerless, the poor, the uneducated) to humble the wise (the rich, the powerful, the ‘wise’).

2. What challenges does this book pose to Western Christians?

Jenkins suggests listening to Global South Christians will help us Northerners re-hear the Old Testament. He refs 9/11 and the confusion as to how could God allow such evil? Yet such a question is a Western one, disconnected from the wisdom literature of the OT and the hope of apocalyptic literature like Daniel.

3. Is there one authentic ‘form’ of Christianity?

Jenkins also concludes that historically Christianity has always taken many diverse forms. It is not as if Northern Chrisitanity is less authentic or real. The real challenge for the future is for Christians from North and South to listen to each other seriously and learn and grow in the process.

He hopes here that Northern liberals and Southern conservatives can better understand each other and so avoid schism (as with Anglican ordination of gay bishops in the USA). Here is one of the few places in the book that I think he is simply naive. They understand each other all too well. The former is departing from historic and biblical faith and no amount of understanding will alter that reality.

He concludes the book saying  that we should beware the next sensational claims to have uncovered the ‘truth’ about the Bible [Dan Brown in mind here?] because

Reading the Bible through fresh eyes constantly reminds us of the depths that still remain to be discovered there … In reality, the answers in plain sight are quite amazing enough.

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