The New Faces Of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South

Philip Jenkins
The New Faces Of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South

Oxford University Press. 2006.
Reviewed by Donald Goertz, Church Historian and Director, MDiv. In Ministry.

This past summer I had the privilege of spending two weeks relaxing with my feet on the red earth of Africa. As a part of my holiday I read this new work by missiologist Philip Jenkins. The sequel to his 2002 book, The Next Christendom, this book begins to engage a question which many readers of the earlier book raised, that of how many global south leaders could biblically come to the conclusions they do.

One of the most interesting and challenging books I have read in a long time, Jenkins’ examination deliberately challenges western hermeneutical assumptions. The western Church, whether liberal or conservative, is involved in a larger discourse framed by doubt, secularism and a variety of secular ideologies (5). This is a profoundly different context than that faced by the Global South. There the neighbour is typically a Muslim, part of a traditional religion, or a member of one of the major Asian religions. As well, the context is predominately one where poverty, corruption, political violence and racial injustice are real issues, not theoretical discussion. As a result of the questions, the answers are profoundly different. In this context, the hegemony of the western historical/critical hermeneutic is of limited value.

This has led to a different weighting of texts. Jenkins points out the significance of biblical literature largely overlooked in the West. An example would be the South’s high value on the wisdom tradition. The idea of wisdom, passed on by the elders, is foundational to these societies. This is not new. As an historian, the example of Origen, the great 3rd century Christian teacher and scholar, who developed the first taxonomy for the Christian life immediately came to mind. To accomplish this schema Origen turned to Wisdom literature. His first level, the moral, was like Proverbs and dealt with behaviour. The second, the natural, related to one’s understanding of how God works and was both observational and intellectual, and related to Ecclesiastes. The final level was the contemplative, the place of spiritual union with God, seen allegorically in the Song of Solomon.

While many western Christians find the way the South uses the text to be disturbing in that it does not always reflect the historical/critical scholarly consensus, Jenkins points out that once the biblical text is translated and given to a people the translator loses control of the text. The people will apply it in ways relevant to their context. He writes that the,

African view effectively follows more contemporary theories of reading and interpretation, stressing the role of communities that receive and use the texts in question. From this perspective, it makes little difference to argue that a given text is clearly not from the hand of its supposed author, if it is received as authoritative by the churches that read it (41).

As a result, the reading community and its social location is critical to the reading of the text.

The book explores the implications of this reading examining such themes as healing and exorcism, prosperity, justice and the role of women. In this context we see how gospel texts on healing and exorcism, not that central to most missionaries, have become pivotal in the new churches. In a world where spirits are assumed and witchcraft provided the ways of responding, Christians found themselves needing to become syncretistic if they wanted to protect themselves and their families. Then they began to reread the texts on exorcism in the Gospels and found practical advice on how to deal with the spirits. The same was true for healing. Missionaries from the 4th century on have been building hospitals. In modern times this was often done in lieu of serious prayer for the sick. The newer indigenous churches have seen the need for victory over powers of evil and sickness as an important part of the gospel.

A fascinating section is the fourth chapter, "Poor and Rich." For most of the western church prospertity gospels have been a real embarrassment and come under significant public scrutiny. For those living in areas of the South where poverty and hunger are endemic, biblical texts on prosperity have taken on a very immediate meaning. The biblical prayers for food, as in the Magnificat where the poor are described as filled, are very real prayers. Jenkins quotes Grant LeMarquand who calls John 10:10 "perhaps the most important single New Testament verse in African exegesis,’ and it is also much quoted in Asia" (92). The term, "abundant life" is an overwhelming promise and suggests prosperity. Jenkins goes on to say of the West that we "fully agree with the prosperity churches that health and wealth are desirable goals, but that realistically, such blessings can only be obtained through secular means, through hard work, thrift, wise investment, and access to good medicine" (96). Southern Christians ask if we believe that prayer can influence one’s material conditions. If not, why do we include these prayers in our liturgies? Fefa Sempangi argues,

"A religion is true if it works, if it meets all the needs of the people. A religion that speaks only to a man’s soul and not to his body is not true. Africans make no distinction between the spiritual and the physical…. If the gospel you are preaching does not speak to human needs, it is useless. It cannot compete with the witch doctor and the gods." (97)

The book is full of provocative statements like this which confront us and touch the reality of all our prayers, even the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer.

Jenkins’ book provides a thoughtful description of a range of readings of the text in the Global South. As such, it challenges our reading of the text. At a personal level it has brought me back to the Wisdom literature reading it with the Africa Bible Commentary as a resource. While our reading of the text is necessarily and correctly done within our context and community and so wrestles with a different range of questions, the reading of scripture in the South does challenge us to broaden our world. We assume that our scientific methodologies need to be normative and judge other readings by it. This limits us and imposes on others. Alternative readings may well allow us to engage scripture in new ways and in doing this, to find that we are wrestling with questions asked by many people living in our immediate communities.