A Book Review on The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity
1. Thesis Statement
A book published by Penn State distinguished scholar of history Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom is an award-winning mixture of historical and sociological work, along with some conditional future projections based on his survey. In 2007 a revised and expanded edition of this book is given birth in response of the demand of increasing public concern and an ever-growing scholarly literature since the release of its editio princeps in 2002.
This well-researched work serves as a reminder that when fascism, communism, feminism, and environmentalism preoccupies most of the people’s interests, a looming whirlwind that shapes the landscape of the earth is often overlooked- namely, the explosive expansion of Christianity in the global south: Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Jenkins suggests that the fact that Christianity shifted from a northern hemisphere-dominated position to the southern-centered stage is not a mere duplication of Western paradigm. Whenever the Gospel’s momentum in the world shifts, demographically or geographically, the Christian faith itself undergoes substantial change as well.
An important observation of the « South Christianity », as surprisingly subversive to some northerners, is that their theologies are much more conservative, charismatic with an eschatological and supernatural bent. Identifying the developmental features of the religious migration with its historical antecedents, Jenkins anticipates a next Christendom reminiscent of the middle age Europe, which could fiercely challenge our present distribution of political powers.
2. Summary of Flow of Ideas
Jenkins asserts that our ignorance of the historical past of Christianity should be liable for the misinterpretation of its present state. The early chapters are thus spent justifying the fact that Christianity does have a stronger roots in the global south and eastern lands and saying the idea that Christianity is somehow a Western phenomenon is only a myth. Significant findings include that the center of gravity for Christianity was not Rome but Syria as late as the 6th century; Monasticism, instead of being an European invention, has African origins in Egypt. Through several lines of evidence, Jenkins concludes that Western dominance of Christianity occurs only within the past 500 years. Hence the Gospel is now simply returning to its Southern roots.
For Jenkins, the homecoming of faith is a poignant moment of history since the missionary enterprise had been so entangled with Western imperial and colonial interests. However, it was not all the cultural hegemony that implanted the faith into the mission fields. Indeed, by picturizing the painstaking efforts of missionaries who protected the indigenous cultures against the monster of colonization, Jenkins concedes that the native cultures embraced the gospel « anew » only because that they « found it the best means explaining the world around them ».
Chapter four is dedicated to diverse accounts of recent developments of faith in different parts of the non-western world (Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, China, and South Korea), in social, political, economical, and even spiritual terms. While avoiding overgeneralization, Jenkins attempts to explain the cause of Christianity’s survival after the breakup of European dominance of the South as resting upon its meeting social needs in countries with ongoing urbanization, (85-87), its building of community (87-90), and even witness of miracles (90-92).
In the latter part of this book, Jenkins seeks to answer the relevant question of what the migration of religious population has to say about our observable future. Assuming that Christianity will enjoy a continual growth of population, the Southern Christianity will soon confront its northern counterpart with intense impact. Differences between the faith in the North and in the South are obvious. While western secular culture’s presuppositions make little room for any theological possibility beyond a Deistic divine presence, the predominant Southern faith comes out from a distinct Pentecostal backdrop. These Southerners are Christians who tend to read the Bible through the eschatological hope of the « doomsday Christ », a practice which is extremely marginalized in northern churches. Their literal interpretation of Scripture also result in schism over sexuality and gender issues.
Things won’t simply remain on theological speculations. The ostensible peace between both hemispheres is at stake as religious identification begins to take precedence over allegiance to secular nation-states. Jenkins describes the Southern Church as a new kind of « Christendom » that involves cultural and political implications. Taking Zambia and the Ivory Coast as example of new « Christian states » (175-177), he anticipates the Crusade of middle age state church might be manifested in the modern époque as violence, terrorism, political divisions, and war.
The final chapter is a plea for a remaking of history of Christianity, that is, « seeing Christianity again for the first time » through the lenses of the Global South (255). An appropriate hermeneutics of the faith also calls for a relevant political theology, lest the Constantinian synthesis of power and faith should repeat in the history of Christianity.
3. Personal Response
All in all, this is a great book that provides an account of Christian faith across the non-western world. Jenkins demonstrates a great ability in giving speech to the demographic data. His attempt to dethrone the hegemony of Western Christianity is undeniably powerful based on his evidence. However, his claim that the European culture formed Christianity into what it is in the West is very simplistic. Jenkins speculates that « if the course of Christian history had run differently, then other societies would have succeeded in spreading their distinctive cultural vision across the world » (128). To say every culture has (or could have) its contextual embodiment of Christian faith, I believe, is to put the Gospel subject to human « habitus » (in Pierre Bourdieu’s term), leaving too little place for Christ the transformer of culture.
My Asian background allows me to observe the different formative phases of indigenous church and missionary-planted church in a colonized country, which convinces me that not all cultures are created equal. Whether Pentecostal or traditional western in nature, a poignant encounter between theology and culture is unavoidable. It is neither their charismatic experience or conventional legacy that ultimate undergirds the church. Rather, there is a transforming faith that gather sheep for the Lord, which I believe should be an objective, unchanging standard to which all cultures must conform.
4. Conclusion: A Reflection
A faith stirred up by witness of supernatural practices yet without strong historical lineage withers easily (Jn 2:23-25; 12:37); A congregation endowed with charismatic gifts yet falling short of profound theology cannot stand firm. However, non-western roots of Christianity in Syria and Rome are too remote to East Asia and Latin America to be considered ancestor of the same Apostolic bloodline, and their theologies are young. Efforts from both theological historians and historical theologians need to be poured into non-western developing societies in order to build up a healthy faith of the church. Jenkins’ pessimistic anticipation of hemispherical opposition will not come true if both of his pleas (reconstruction of church history and adequate political theology), as we all wish, are timely and rightfully addressed.