The Long View: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity

The basic demographics of religion across the world remain unchanged from twelve years ago.

The Next Christendom:
The Coming of Global Christianity
By Philip Jenkins
Oxford University Press, 2002
270 Pages, US$14.95
ISBN 0-19-516891-7

Often enough, books on important topics are published almost simultaneously with historical events that discredit them. This book, on the future of world Christianity, and not least on the likelihood of conflict with Islam, is a rare exception. It went to press in September of 2001, so it did not mention the attacks of that month on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The author, Philip Jenkins, is a professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He did not add references to those events in subsequent editions. He did not need to. Though one might quarrel with many parts of his analysis, the intervening years have seen nothing to undermine his basic thesis that the position of Christianity as the world's largest religion will only improve in the 21st century. The fascinating question is how different world Christianity will be from the Christianity of the era of European predominance.

Christianity began as a Near Eastern religion. The bulk of the world's Christians may have been European no earlier than the 11th or 12th century. The latest configuration, in which most Christians live in Latin America and Africa and East Asia, is sometimes called “The Third Church,” though one hopes that Jenkins's “Next Christendom” sticks. If demographics are destiny, then people who foresee a Muslim future are simply mistaken. Christianity is well represented in the countries with the fastest-growing populations. Indeed, it always has been. In 1900, at the height of the European empires, perhaps a third of the world was Christian, just as a third of the world's population was European or of European extraction. Today, when a majority of the world's Christians already live outside of Europe and of America north of the Rio Grande, the Christian percentage of the world is still about a third. Projections have it that the percentage should also be at least a third in 2050, despite the high growth rates in Muslim countries, and despite the demographic declines, sometimes in absolute terms, of the developed countries.

The author gives a great deal of attention to Africa in particular. We get lots of tasty statistics. Apparently, just 10% of Africans were Christian in 1900. The portion grew to 25% by 1965, about the time that Christians began to outnumber Muslims. By 2001, it was perhaps 46%. “In American terms,” he explains, “much of the continent has served as one vast burnt over district.” (He refers, of course, to the region of western New York State that produced so many new religious movements in the first half of the 19th century.) He does not neglect the AICs (“African Independent Churches,” though that acronym has more than one interpretation.). He points out that, however interesting the AICs may be, the big story is the continuing vitality of the mainstream denominations, particularly those that have become little more than museum curiosities in Europe.

In general, one might characterize the Christianity of the South (which, oddly, includes the East) as visionary, charismatic, apocalyptic. At the same time, it is also theologically and culturally conservative. The tension is real: not just in the North, but also in the South, people ask, “What is essentially Christian?” There is an ancient tradition of using the cultural resources of pagan societies for the purposes of evangelization. Europe itself was converted in part by the missionaries' willingness to regard the native mythologies as “preparatio evangelica.” On the other hand, there is no denying that intelligent inculturation of the faith can lead to unacceptable syncretism.

Wherever Christianity expands today, it favors the vernacularization of scripture and liturgy. This can lead to extreme situations, such as the incorporation of animal sacrifices into Christian services. It raises questions about polygamy and the role of the clergy. The latter is particularly an issue for the explosively growing and ludicrously understaffed Catholic Church. Jenkins points out that, when the Vatican reasserts dogmas that seem against the tide of history to Europeans and Americans, it is in fact simply responding to the Church's key demographics: “The hierarchy knows that the liberal issues dear to American or West European Catholics are irrelevant or worse to the socially traditional societies of the South.” Jenkins even makes bold to suggest that dogma itself may be shaped by Southern enthusiasms: “There is now talk that the Virgin might be proclaimed a mediator and co-Savior figure, comparable to Jesus himself, even a fourth member of the Trinity.”

Regarding the last point: I have heard that talk, too, all of it from old-style traditional Catholics. Even if it were theologically possible (and certainly a redefinition of the Trinity would not be), I just don't see the market.

In any case, Jenkins notes, no doubt correctly, that many of the peculiarities of Southern Christianity are simply aspects of its newness. Prophets may prophesy today, but in due course they will be replaced by ecclesiastical bureaucrats who write memos, even in Africa. Indeed, the famous social conservatism of the South may pass away, too. However, this will not happen for generations.

The Spirit moves where It will, but certain factors are present in most places where Christianity has seen recent growth:

---Much of the world is becoming urbanized in chaotic megalopolises The displaced people there need communities, and services that the government cannot provide.

---In the new Christian groups, members of disfavored races and castes can become leaders. Women are somewhat less likely to become leaders, but they become the core members.

---Men learn family responsibility and chastity.

---People can experience the presence of God in everyday life. Among the topics that figure most prominently in contemporary conversion narratives are physical healing and emancipation from various addictions.

Jenkins cites repeatedly Harvey Cox's noted study of the worldwide spread of Pentecostal worship, Fire from Heaven. By Pentecostalism he does not mean principally the self-identified Pentecostal denominations, important though those are. More important may be the spread of this pluripotent spirituality through the older denominations. If present trends continue, there will be a billion Pentecostals, variously defined, by 2050. That number will be comparable to the number of Hindus. Catholics will, the author reminds us, outnumber both, but he suggests that the rise of Pentecostalism may have been the most important event of the 20th century. In Latin America in particular, it is becoming almost a third limb of Christianity. It is also an object of suspicion to many Protestant denominations, who look askance at its reliance on personal revelation and on its destitute audiences.

The author does not cease to remind us of the parallels between our time and that of the period just after the fall of the Roman Empire, when the Greek Christianity of the eastern Mediterranean was transmuted in the forests of northern Europe. 21st century Christianity is becoming the ghost of the European empires, just as medieval Christianity, in Hobbes's famous metaphor, was the ghost of the Roman Empire.

More important is the fact that, in so much of the South, we are back in the world of the New Testament. Christianity is once again the religion of the extremely poor. The Gospels speak of demonic possession, prophecy, healing, and of being brought before tribunals that may exact death as the price of adherence to the faith. These are not metaphors, but daily experiences for an increasing part of today's Christians. As Jenkins puts it: “In the South, Revelation simply makes sense, in its description of a world ruled by monstrous demonic powers.”

It was not so long ago that progressive churchmen placed high hopes in theologies of liberation as the cutting edge of revolutionary reform in the South, and particularly in Latin America. Jenkins makes the important point that the embrace of socialism by sophisticated Southern Catholics dovetailed neatly with the older tradition of integralism. In any case, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Catholic Church often did serve the political interests of the poor. Clerics were martyred, and others became genuine democratic leaders. Popular religious movements did spring up. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “The Church chose the poor, and the poor chose the evangelicals.” There certainly were cases in Latin America, as in Africa, where oppressive governments turned to charismatic and quietist groups in order to circumvent the traditional churches and their new social radicalism. In general, though, Liberation Theology was seen as a northern artifact, essentially irrelevant to the spiritual and social needs of the people. On the whole, Catholic charismatic groups have been more important than the “base communities” so favored by the religious Left.

Not unreasonably, the author reminds us again and again how surprising this resacralized world must be to Westerners who grew up assuming that secularization was the irreversible direction of history. However, he also reminds us that the reversal is not unprecedented: consider the revival of both orthodoxy and religious enthusiasm in the 19th century, just after the secular Enlightenment seemed to be carrying all before it.

Jenkins makes a few surmises about the future of Christianity in the West. Regarding post-Christian Europe, he notes that, in addition to the Muslims, many of the new immigrants are Christian, particularly from Africa and the Caribbean. This creates at least the opportunity for an immigrant-led revival. In the US, of course, immigration works differently, because American Christianity is by no means moribund. He does take care to refute the notion that the US is becoming more “religiously diverse,” if by that you mean “less Christian.”

Jenkins does not present a single scenario for the future. Rather, he tosses off one and then another, like a screenwriter proposing multiple ideas for disaster movies to a film studio. One can imagine future North-South conflicts, created by maldistribution of wealth, but expressed in literally apocalyptic terms. In the long run, the greater threat to McWorld may not be the Jihad, but the Crusade. The North could eventually define itself against Christianity.

Despite the possibility of conflict with the North, there are more opportunities for trouble between different regions of the South. In modern times, Christian minorities have fared far worse in Muslim countries than Muslims in Christian ones. Wars between Muslim and Christian theocracies might well be a feature of 21st–century Africa. Any “fracture area” between the Muslim and Christian worlds could be the place where a world war begins. “Imagine the world of the 13th century,” he suggests, “armed with nuclear weapons and anthrax.”

Jenkins makes a few points about other religions. Hindu chauvinists have been almost as oppressive toward Christians as Muslims have been, but that is partly because Hinduism is vulnerable: the huge Dalit (Untouchable) caste in India could benefit enormously from conversion to either Christianity or Islam. The eclipse of Buddhism, Jenkins says, is historically anomalous and probably temporary. Regarding Judaism, he notes that the Next Christendom has more freedom than the North to turn against Israel, because the South feels no responsibility for the Holocaust. On the other hand, since Israel has often aided Christian minorities being oppressed by Muslim governments, Israel could be counted among the crusaders. Jenkins constructs even stranger scenarios, such as one in which a still agnostic Chinese government comes to the aid of ethnic Chinese Christians in Malaysia or Indonesia, whose Muslim governments are supported by the United States.

There is a long tradition on both the Right and Left in developed countries of using the South for rhetorical purposes. A generation ago, the radical Left said that political battles that were lost in the West would be won in the South and East. Now Conservatives are saying the same thing. The world's multiculturalists are discovering, to their horror, that they have in fact been fostering a planetary religious revival. Still, Jenkins is clear that Western conservatives no more control the Next Christendom than the Old Left controlled aggressive international communism. The Right will probably be just as surprised at what actually happens as the left ever was.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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