Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Next Christendom

In his book The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins asserts that Christianity is going through “one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide” (1) which (for the most part) has gone unnoticed in the West. The transition that is taking place Jenkins explains is the shift from a Western dominated Christianity to a Christianity of the Southern hemisphere. Even though this trend has been nearly imperceptible to the Western/Northern witness, it very well may “play a critical role in world affairs,” (4) since many of the nations with the largest numbers of growing Christian numbers are also the nations with the fastest growing and youngest populations in the world. While the West sees Christianity as a movement in its last days in the middle of its death rattle, Christian numbers are soaring in regions that also see the number of Muslims on the rise as well which may cause intense rivalry between the two groups in these areas.

Even though most accounts of missionary work in the South have been romanticized either positively or negatively, their message proved appealing. After Western imperial expansion dissipated in the twentieth century, many believed that Christianity would dissipate in those regions once occupied by quote unquote Christian nations. This was not the case; in fact, Christianity in the South is expanding at such a rate that in fifty years there will be more Christians in Africa and South America than in Europe. According to Jenkins, there are at least four reasons Christianity enjoys the success that it does in the South: (1) the “networking effect”, (2) reconciliation with local traditions, (3) structure (4), and message. To begin, in the networking effect, the word traveled along from one individual to another; that individual, in turn, would spread the idea to his or her family; the family then would spread the word to the rest of the village; the villagers then would spread the good news to other villages in their area and so on and so on and so on. In other words, converts took the message to others which produced more converts.

Secondly, integrating traditions with Christianity which Jenkins calls the “Silk Strategy”—referring to a question raised in China about what material could be used in vestments—has proved to be one of the main causes for both Christianity’s success and the great diversity of worship in the South.

With the fourth reason for Christianity’s success-- providing structure—the religion offers something familiar in the face of a changing world. In this way, as Jenkins explains, it is a response to similar economic circumstances… [that] can be seen as a by-product of modernization and urbanization,” (72-73). While Christianity in the South speaks to all classes, it is with the very poor that the religion has become most popular. Jenkins illustrates this point more thoroughly when he writes “churches provide a social network that would otherwise be lacking, and help teach members the skills they need to survive in a rapidly developing society,” (74).

The final reason Christianity has enjoyed such success proves more complicated but of great importance (in Jenkins’s view) that the Southern churches hold that “God intervenes directly in everyday life” (77). According to this view, evil rises not from societal affairs but from spiritual evil that religion has the power to traverse. Christianity, promising boons in both this life and the next, is not a form of escape but a path toward prosperity. The poor in the Third World suffering from all the diseases present in say the United States as well as those associated with poverty, hunger, and pollution (78)—not mention mental health issues and substance addiction—find themselves desperate to improve their lot; thus, they look to God for divine intervention in the form of healings and miracles. Regardless of the reasons to why Christianity has proved so popular in the South, this growth will have a great impact on world diplomacy especially in areas where the number of Muslims is also on the rise.

In regions of the globe where the population is increasing most rapidly there is often times a serious tension between Christians and Muslims which in many cases has erupted into violence. The Muslim-Christian conflict has become commonplace in postmodernity with crucial implications for world order. To illustrate that this is a reality in the areas that are most divided between the two faiths, Jenkins looks at the civil wars and riots that have plagued nations like Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Indonesia for the last half century. Looking at Sudan, for example, where there are 35 million people (a number that is projected to increase to 84 million by 2050), 25 million of which are Muslim while only one in about seventeen is Christian, the world sees one of the most unstable nations in the world with atrocities that are barely even believable. Listed among these are “indiscriminate bombings, the burning and looting of villages, and the killings, abductions, rapes, and arbitrary arrests and detentions of civilians,” (171) which are often acts of violence from the Muslim majority against the Christian minority. The southern region of Sudan made up of black Africans who make up most of the two million Christians, has experienced great oppression by the Muslim controlled northern part of the country. When the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) came into being in an attempt to overthrow the oppressive regime, the government responded by massacring thousands upon thousands of the southern Sudanese while burning entire villages to the ground and forcing women and children into slavery. It completely blows the mind to think in the Year of Our 2008 there are still nations which tolerate slavery.

While Sudan is one of the most extreme examples of religious intolerance of Christian minorities, it is by no means an isolated occurrence and as Jenkins explains “if Muslims insist that their faith demands the establishment of Islamic states, regardless of the existence of religious minorities, the violence is assuredly going to occur, “ (172-73). This can be seen in the African nation Nigeria (which could have as many as half a billion people by 2050) with possible consequences that are terrifying in that the state could become a radical, violent Islamic-super-state.

Worldwide, the Christian-Muslim tension is all the more problematic when Judaism enters into the dialogue, especially when dealing with the United States’ “blind support” of Israel. This support “infuriates not just the bulk of the world’s Muslims, but also many Third World Christians” since it is in these countries that the Muslim governments are able to oppress the unwanted minority. Since the United States is a Christian nation, as Jenkins sees it anyway, and one of the world’s most powerful at that, all of Christianity is then seen as supporting Israel. That is to say, simply being Christian is seen by much of the Islamic world as supporting the U.S. policy regarding Israel which they see as being “anti-Muslim,” (181).

Jenkins’s analysis on world order and global Christianity proves to be one of the authoritative texts on this subject. While extremely informative on issues that every Christian should become familiar, it basically scared me more than anything else. Considering most people know little about these Christian-Muslim conflicts with potentially devastating effects, I seriously doubt that any real action will be taken to stabilize the region. Nor does Jenkins really offer any solution to the problems facing global security. Much like a group like say the SPLA, Jenkins is great at exposing the corrupt hypocritical governments, but when it comes to establishing a superior alternative, there isn’t one readily available. While the SPLA used the fact that they were good at pointing out the shortcomings of others (ironically) to become better tyrants, Jenkins doesn’t really seem to offer any answers as for what to do either. Pointing out the problem doesn’t really solve anything. Everyone wants change but no one offers anything but a vague notion of what change involves. In postmodernity, the one thing we are lacking more than anything else is the know how to bring about real change.

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