An Interview with Dr. Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History, on Global Christianity (Part 1)
Ed: What are some differences in global attitudes to the nature of the Bible and the Old Testament?
Dr. Jenkins: When you are in Europe or the United States, if you are dealing with ordinary, secular people, the Old Testament can be almost an embarrassment. "We do not understand this. This is an ancient, primitive world. This is of no relevance to us."
If you go to many parts of Africa there's the opposite problem-- which is that people can be tempted to read the Old Testament, see it as so relevant, so immediate that they don't need anything else. The church in the Sudan, for example, tries very hard not to issue translations of the Book of Leviticus because, the danger is the people will just read that and not want the New Testament because Leviticus was so obviously written for their society.
Think about that in terms of evangelism. If I am talking to an American or a European and I'm trying to explain a concept like atonement. That's a very strange idea. Blood sacrifice is strange and alien. But now imagine trying to spread that same message in a society in Africa where they're very used to the idea of animal sacrifice. They know the idea that blood pays the price of sin. All you have to get across is the idea that all these sacrifices are all trivial. There is one sacrifice, which is Christ. They can understand that.
Ed: What are the greatest differences that can emerge between older and newer churches?
Dr. Jenkins: There's one word that I would come up with again and again-- healing. If you want to understand the success of Christianity in the past hundred years around the world, it is in the concept of healing. Not, of course, in the sense of healing physical injuries, but a holistic a healing of the body, the mind, the soul, the spirit, and society is central to church growth around the world.
These kind of mission churches are providing a way for healing a great division in Western Christianity, where they always find this distinction between liberation theology, which aims to cure the material ills of society, and deliverance, which aims to cure the ills of the soul. What the newer churches have realized is that those two words are the same word. Any kind of mission that does not cure both is offering a flawed, partial, and inadequate message.
To illustrate this, I want you to imagine a church service in Uganda. During this service a woman believes that she has been cured of a spinal injury that had plagued her for many years, so she stands up and wants to give testimony. Then somebody else stands and wants to give testimony about his healing and her healing. This goes on for a while, with more and more people testifying. The deacon begins looking at his watch and really wants to get out of there before next Sunday. So he says, "Anyone who wants to report being healed of this kind of disease put your hands up now." Several people raise their hands. He says another type of illness and more raise their hands.
Something like that would be very unexpected in the United States. But this was a true story from a Roman Catholic Church. The original healing happened during the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. With these churches, you should forget everything you know about denominational divisions. I sometimes say if you're Nigeria you try to pin them down by Western divisions by asking: Are you Evangelical? Are you Catholic? Are you Charismatic? And the answer is always the same-- yes.
Besides a theology of healing and a much broader acceptance of what would be associated with Pentecostal or charismatic teaching in the U.S., another issue that dominates the growing global church is poverty. We traditionally think of Christianity in the West as being, here's the phrase we use: Western educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. If you take the first letters of that, it spells the English word weird. So what we're talking about is a transition away from weird Christianity to a normal kind of Christianity.
One of the characteristics of this bizarre variation of Christianity is that for centuries now it has been focused in North America and Europe. We've lived in the era sometimes called the North Atlantic captivity of the church. A result of this is that Christians have lived in Christian societies. If there have been non-Christian minorities they been tiny and, in many cases, the relationships with those minorities, especially Jews, have been catastrophic.
We are moving into an era where Christians, as a matter of normality, live as minorities or live in 50/50 divided societies. And I don't think we have begun to think of the implications of that. If you have a fairly tolerant regime in, for instance, the Arab Gulf which is very happy to have Christian churches, but absolutely no attempt to convert, to evangelize. What happens to the call to go and make Christians of all nations?
The best way to sum up the radical shift in Christianity brought about by some of these changes around the world is to tell you about the best book review I ever received. When I wrote the book, Next Christendom, I received all sorts of good reviews, but the best review was in Washington, D.C. from a wealthy Episcopal lady. She said, "I've read your book. It's absolutely wonderful, but you've told us about this new kind of Christianity exploding around the world, all these hundreds of millions of new Christians, they're so passionate. They're so devoted. It's like the New Testament. Tell me, Professor Jenkins, as Americans, as Christians what can we do to stop this?"
The reason I thought that was such a great review was because she got the point, which was we do live in these times of very dramatic change. But it's hard, from where we are to get a global view. So that's what I'm trying to do. While most people don't realize it, we live in what I would say is the most important time in Christian history since the first couple of centuries, even more so than the Reformation. I'm trying to suggest different ways of looking at it.