JenNewf 07-02-014


Believing the Bible in the Global South



Philip Jenkins

Oxford University Press, 2006, 252 pp., ISBN 0-19-530065-3  


Philip Jenkins is professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University and the author of several books.  The Next Christendom made the cover story of the Atlantic Monthly and surprised missiologists who did not expect such a complete work that parallels so much of their own research over the past two decades.  This is a follow-up work describing how Christians in the newer churches read and understand the Bible.  It is more academic than the previous book and I found myself getting bogged down in it.  Nevertheless it has significant insights, especially for the missions movement.


Ch. 1.  Shall the Fundamentalists Win?

There is a sharp global division, “with many North American and European churches willing to accommodate liberalizing trends in the wider society, while their African and Asian counterparts prove much more conservative.  These controversies are grounded in attitudes to authority and, above all, to the position of the Bible as an inspired text.” (1)


“As Joel Carpenter observes, ‘Christian theology eventually reflects the most compelling issues from the front lines of mission, so we can expect that Christian theology will be dominated by these issues rising from the global South.’”  “Over the past decade, the worldwide Anglican Communion has provided the most visible front in North-South struggles over biblical authority.” (2)


Conservative themes “include a much greater respect for the authority of scripture, especially in matters of morality; a willingness to accept the Bible as an inspired text and a tendency to literalism; a special interest in supernatural elements of scripture, such as miracles, visions, and healings; a belief in the continuing power of prophecy; and a veneration for the Old Testament, which is considered as authoritative as the New.” (4) [The book treats these issues in detail. dlm]


“For the growing churches of the global South, the Bible speaks to everyday, real-world issues of poverty and debt, famine and urban crisis, racial and gender oppression, state brutality and persecution.  The omnipresence of poverty promotes the awareness of the transience of life, the dependence of individuals and nations on God, and the distrust of the secular order.” (5)


“In consequence, the ‘Southern’ Bible carries a freshness and authenticity that adds vastly to its credibility as an authoritative source and a guide for daily living.” (5)  “Cultures that readily identify with biblical worldviews find it easier to read the Bible not just as historical fact, but as relevant instructions for daily conduct: and that even applies to such unfashionable books as Leviticus.” (6)


“The figures are startling.  Between 1900 and 2000, the number of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million to over 360 million, from 10 percent of the population to 46 percent.” “Already today, Africans and Asians represent some 30 percent of all Christians, and the proportion will rise steadily.” (9)


Fundamentalism “was originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian scriptures, but has now become a catch-all description for ultraconservative intolerance.  Used thus, the term becomes purely pejorative and, often, subjective.  The term ‘fundamentalism’ expands to cover anyone who treats a religion as something that should shape one’s daily life, provided that leads to conclusions that the speaker does not like.  If your reading of the Bible inspires you to help the poor, that is passionate religious commitment.  If it leads you to denounce homosexuality, you are a fundamentalist.  In the modern U.S. context, the term ‘evangelical’ is well on the way to acquiring such connotations, as a label for intolerant (white) social conservatives.” (10-11)


“In short, the growing significance of Christianity in global South nations demands to be understood by anyone interested in the future development of those regions.” (17)


Ch 2.  Power of the Book

“Today, half the inhabitants of this planet are under twenty-four, and of those, almost 90 percent live in the global South.” (27) 


“For many reasons, then, we can expect religious and particularly biblical texts to carry great weight in Southern churches.  And before seeing this ‘Biblicism’ as a sign of youth and immaturity, we might well ask whether liberal Northern or conservative Southern readings are more dated in their own ways, or cling too specifically to particular cultures.  Each in its ways is rooted in particular assumptions about modes of interpretation, and historical or literary criticism.” (40)


“Whatever their disagreements over particular issues, the newer churches see the Bible as a dependable and comprehensive source of authority; and this respect extends to the whole biblical text, to both Testaments.” (41)


Ch 3.  Old and New [Testaments]

“Cultural affinities with the biblical world lead African and Asian Christians to a deep affection for the Old Testament as their story, their book.”  “While the vast majority of modern Africans have no direct experience of nomadism or polygamy, at least they can relate to the kind of society in which such practices were commonplace.  Equally familiar is the prominent element of sacrifice in Hebrew ritual.” (45) “You do not have to interpret Old Testament Christianity to Africans; they live in an Old Testament world.” (46, quoting Andrew Walls). 


“It is precisely the ‘primitive’ features of ancient Hebrew religion, which distress many modern Westerners, that have long endeared it to Africans.” (47)


“The church is older in Africa than in Europe.  Modern African Christians readily claim direct continuities from Judaism.” (49)  “Some AICs [African Independent Churches] believe that Old Testament rules and customs do in fact bind modern Christians….” (50)  “Texts about idolatry and the overthrow of hostile gods read relevantly here….” (51)


“In Africa, the book of Proverbs enjoys a popularity and authority that would surprise many Americans….”  “Attitudes to proverbial wisdom sharply divide traditional and modern cultures.” (57-8)  “When African churches cite biblical texts with such enormous respect, they are treating them with the authority that they would earlier have accorded to the ‘words of the elders.’” (59) 


“Southern church leaders reject the notion that societies should tolerate the sexual misdeeds of individuals, because personal immorality becomes part of a national burden, a collective offense against divine law, which invites retribution.  This vision of a godly society would have made excellent sense to American colonists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries….” (62) “In their selection of Bible readings and sermon texts, African and Asian churches show an acute awareness of the necessity for community righteousness, for the maintenance of the godly nation.” (63)  


Ch. 4. Poor and Rich

“Those cultures which are far removed from biblical culture risk reading the Bible as fiction.” (68, quoting Musimbi Kanyoro)


“The Southward movement of Christianity implies…a fundamental shift in their social and economic background.  The average Christian in the world today is a poor person….often minorities in countries dominated by other religions or secular ideologies.” “For many such readers, the Bible is congenial because the world it describes is marked by such currently pressing social problems as famine and plague, poverty and exile, clientelism and corruption.” (68)  “…African and Asian readers can be shown that the biblical message is in its origins anything but a Western import.”  “Particularly appealing are the parables….” (69)


“On occasion, the social background of global South readers allows them to see dimensions of the text that have been largely lost in a postindustrial world.” (72)  “The Bible’s wisdom literature is so popular, in part, because of its profound sense of the transience of life.” (75)  “In contrast to older Western assumptions, contemporary Christians often constitute minority populations….  To be a Christian in much of Asia is to experience the status of aliens, of social exiles within their own lands.” (84) 


Ch 5.  Good and Evil

“As in the early church, much of global South Christianity today is a healing religion par excellence, with a strong belief in the objective existence of evil, and (commonly) a willingness to accept the reality of demons and the diabolical.” (98)  “By treating older notions of spiritual evil seriously, Christians are leading an epochal cultural revolution.” (99)  Many “commonly interpret sickness, the loss of a job, and other setbacks as interventions by an angry God.” (100) 


“Most African Christians are second- or third-generation members of the faith, so that a lively animist presence is always in evidence.” (101)


“Across Africa and Asia, spiritual warfare is a familiar component of most Christian practice, even among denominations that in the global North would scorn such approaches.  The boundaries separating evangelical and charismatic churches are very porous in the global South….” (105)


For a surprising number the power of evil can span generations. (120)  They see healing—not as curing specific ailments but a holistic, comprehensive treatment of ills—as central to the New Testament. (123)


Ch. 6.  Persecution and Vindication

“The New Testament portrays persecution as a likely if not inevitable consequence of Christian belief.” “…persecution is a quite real prospect for much of the new Christianity, and martyrdom is both a recent and a continuing reality for many African and Asian churches.” (128)  “Between 2000 and 2005, violence between Muslims and Christians in just one Nigerian province killed or expelled over fifty thousand people, mainly Christian.” (129)


“Probably 70 percent of Indian Christians are Dalits….  Read from a Dalit perspective, the Christian gospels are an astonishing document, as Jesus systematically flouts restrictions, taboos, and eating rules powerfully reminiscent of modern Hindu practice.” “At every stage, Jesus does things that offend the elites of his day….”  “His gospel is directed to Galileans around the world, ‘a paradigm of all oppressed, marginalized and stigmatized people.’”  “Perhaps only a society in which wealth and power are so intimately tied to religious and ritual status can appreciate the authentic social radicalism of the earliest Jesus movement, or the direct physical risks entailed in membership.” (136)


“In the global South…the biblical account of Revelation exercises an immense fascination across the political spectrum.  Given its portrayal of secular states as deceptive, evil persecutors, and cities as the seats of demonic forces, the book’s appeal requires little explanation.”  “Revelation is eminently suitable for a society that lives constantly with disasters and violence.” (150)  The message of Revelation is a comfort: “however overwhelming the world’s evils might seem, God has triumphed and will triumph.” (151) 


Ch 7.  Women and Men

Across much of the global South, “women find in the new churches the power to speak and often to lead, and that Christianity is transforming women’s role and aspirations.” (158)  However, it is also true that “the newer churches have arisen in societies with conservative notions of gender roles, and they naturally gravitate to Bible passages that support these ideas.” (159)


Ch. 8  North and South [A summary]

“But we can reasonably ask whether the emerging Christian traditions of the Two-Thirds World have recaptured themes and trends in Christianity that the older churches have forgotten, and if so, what we can learn from their insights.” (178)  “What Americans customarily think of as Christianity is, often, a specific manifestation of the faith that operates in the post-Enlightenment West.” (181) 


“As we have seen, though, the lived Christianity of Africa and Asia shares many assumptions with Islam, and in some matters, can be closer to Islam than to the Christianity of the advanced West.”   “So many of the apparent differences between the two faiths arise from making a false comparison, between the privatized Christianity of the largely prosperous post-Enlightenment West, and the collective and tradition-minded Islam of overwhelmingly poor nations in Africa and Asia.  Many of the contrasts reflect the cultures in which the two religions exist….”  (182) 


“The differences between old and new Christianities, as manifested in their approaches to the Bible, must make us wonder about the future of the faith.” (185)  “…new orthodox churches hew to authentic scripture; old churches fall prey to liberalism and succumb to fiction and speculation.”  “The practical consequences are all too clear if we contrast the teeming congregations of Africa and Asia with the empty churches of post-Christian Europe.  In the words of the Magnificat, God has filled hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (186)


“African church leaders themselves are quick to point out negative aspects of that continent’s…Christianity,” such as the Rwandan genocide, the prevalence of the Prosperity Gospel, the lack of depth.  (186)  “Some might claim, then, that the kind of Bible-based Christianity we see in Asia and Africa works well because of its premodern or prescientific setting, but that it will in turn find itself displaced by economic development.  Under the impact of modernity, individualism, privatization, and the rise of scientific worldview, older styles of Christianity lose relevance.” (187) 


However, this argument has flaws.  “Around a quarter of Americans accept the label ‘evangelical,’ while many Catholics also accept traditional interpretations of the Christian faith.  This hardly sounds like a society that can get along very well without God.”   “Like any healthy institution, Christianity develops over time, though without necessarily compromising its core beliefs.” (188)


“Even so, Northern-world audiences can still profit immensely from the insights of newer churches.”  “…we can still rediscover different ways of reading texts both familiar and not so familiar.  ‘Reading from the South’ can help free biblical passages and even whole genres from the associations they have acquired from our own historical inheritance.  Perhaps most important, the experience of the emerging churches must make us rethink the role of the Old Testament.”  “In the process, we can rediscover quite ancient means of responding to suffering or calamity.” (189)


“Quite probably, the story of Christianity over the coming decades will be marked by new schisms that broadly follow the North-South division….”  “We can also predict with fair confidence the rhetorical approaches of both sides, as Northern liberals denounce intolerant fundamentalism, while Southern churches assert fealty to biblical foundations.” (191)


“If we live in Western cultures profoundly shaped by Christianity and Christian values over centuries, we can be startled to watch the transforming effects of the religion on a society, when so often this process is grounded in scriptural texts that have for us lost much of their power to surprise.  We see the power of Christianity to overturn hierarchies and traditions.  The chief beneficiaries are often the traditionally excluded groups, women and racial minorities, the poor, even those suffering under traditional stigmas or cast rules.  Empowered by the Bible, they learn to speak out and claim their place in society.” (193) 


“The fact that these are dead issues for us reminds us of the overwhelming cultural debt that Western societies owe to their religious roots.”  “Reading the Bible through fresh eyes constantly reminds us of the depths that still remain to be discovered there.” (193) 



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