Just finished reading Philip Jenkins’ book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. It is the followup to his even more brilliant (I would say) work The Next Christendom.
In The Next Christendom, Jenkins laid out the argument for the Third Church–the Church of the Global South: African, Asian, and Latin American. A summary here. The Third Church means the third mass “paradigm” of Christianity. 1. Jewish Christianity–Jesus, the Apostles, James his Brothers and Family and the initial converts. 2. Gentile Christianity: Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism–ME and European dominated Christianity. 3. Christianity fo the South. The “New” Gentiles.
Although technically the Global South doesn’t fit perfectly because some of the strongest rising movements are in China, Korea, and Taiwan. Not exactly South. I’m going to be focusing almost entirely on sub-Saharan Africa anyway, so Global South works in that context.
Christianity is fast dying out in the Middle East and Orthodox Europe–both threatened by rising Islam from one side and secularism from the other–as well as in Western Europe/Canada/liberal US. And within those countries the groups that do still attend church are first or second generation Third Church-ers: Latino immigrants over Irish/Italian/German Catholics in US; Ugandans, Nigerians in England; Koreans in Canada.
In the New Faces of Christianity, Jenkins lays out the worldview/theologies of this growing churches. One interesting piece he raises is how strongly the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament in old parlance) is for sub-Saharan Africans.
The Hebrew scriptures are filled with imagery/events familiar to those from sub-Saharan Africa–or the Global South more generally.
To name just a few: clan warfare, pervasive dis-ease/plagues, infant mortality-early death, patriarchal structures, polygamy, famines, agricultural lifestyle, exorcisms, the reality of demonic-spiritual forces and warfare, pagansim, refugees, genocide, corrupt monarchs, existence of different religions–i.e. Hinduism in India; Islam in sub-sah Africa.
For educated, wealthy (by historical/third world status) Westerners, none of those are a reality. Not as an existential threat. Of course there are communicable diseases that educated and poor can and do share alike (e.g. AIDS) but even here think of the difference in treatment. Or with natural disasters, the response or flight ability of those with resources.
Modern Western humanity does not rely primarily on a god-figure or the Bible more specifically. We rely more principally on technology, media, self-power, capital markets, education, and the god of rationality.
For this reason the great German theologian (20th c.) Rudolf Bultmann called for a de-mythologization of Christianity. What he meant was that the mythology (the mythic meme) within which the Bible was written was not that of the modern, economically viable, educated Westerner. The two worldspaces were separate and to Bultmann’s mind essentially unbridgable.
Rather than trying to leave one’s brain at the church door, Bultmann suggested an existential re-interpretation of Christian myth for modern Westerners. For modern Westerners the greatest plague is in most cases not any of the daily grinds of poverty mentioned in the African context, but rather that of loneliness, meaningless, and anomie. Both groups feel a deep sense of powerlessness in their own ways. The Christian proclamation of the Resurrection is an overcoming not of the forces of spiritual demons but the inner demons of a isolated, loveless modern existence. That is our crucifixion–God redeems us in our death of understanding, traditions, and sense of purpose to life.
Then Liberation Theologies came along–sometimes from members of the Global South but often ones educated in Europe and European thought streams….e.g. Latin American Catholic theologians. Liberation theologians came along and said that by looking through the lens of critical postmodern hermeneutics–Marxist, feminist, traditions of the other/neglected, queer studies, ecological, etc.–that Chrstians either stood on the sides of the forces of oppression or those of reconciliation/empowerment. The latter often being labelled under the term “inclusion.”
What both the modernist and postmodernist turns have deeply to admit–though they often try to hide this fact–is that they have taken other norms, other lenses as constitutive of the Biblical faith for their age. One of saying that more “orthodox” would be to say that say a lens of the Other (from say Levinas) has taught us to read the deeper meaning of the Exodus story: that God chooses the weak to shame the strong, in the words of St. Paul.
Others have been more upfront about the developmetn of the tradition. In the recent controversy in the Anglican communion over the ordination to a bishop of a divorced, openly-gay man in a non-celibate partnership, Gene Robinson (the man in question) said that just because the Bible and the tradition have always said that homosexuality is wrong, that does not end the discussion.
That is not to say that these themse are not within the Biblical texts, but these readings do not arise separate from the hermeneutics employed, nor the contexts that bring them forth–namely the modern and postmodern Western worlds.
The Bible for all of its other insights was written in a mythic context. A world in which such elements that we would term mythic were not questioned. Nor believed in fundamentally—they were just never questioned.
And the Bible, and for the Christian the New Testament/gospel offers itself as the source of all wisdom as to achieving salvation in a mythic world. As does the Quran for Islam.
For sub-Saharan Africa, given the worldspace that the majority reside in, these two books are the ones that are becoming the source of wisdom/guidance. They are building up to this mythc world and can not afford any picking/choosing of the Biblical texts in the manner of the Western reader.
[Of course there is always picking/choosing, but I mean a fundamental questioning of core pieces of the Bible itself].
It is in this context that the recent declaration of heresy on the part of a majority of Global South Anglican churches (except the more liberal South Africa) over the issue of homosexuality.
It is unforuntate the the debate has centered around homosexuality and caused homosexuals to be discriminated against. The debate fundamentally is not about homosexuality but about the need for what the Bible can be in different worldviews. Or to put it more simply, how we understand the Bible. Its meaning, its authority in our lives, especially for moral decision making.
For the African Churches the Bible must be the source for all such lifeworld shaping. Jenkins quotes the Anglican Nigerian hierarchy who write (my emphasis): “The primary presupposition is a high view of Scripture as inerrant [ed: does not err] and a sufficient guide in all matters of faith and conduct, such that its ethics and injunctions are of timeless relevance, notwithstanding man’s constant tendency to hop from one ethical paradigm to another.” (Jenkins, p.3)
It is in this light that we should read condemnations of homosexuality coming from these Southern churches. In a world in which they have no governments to rely on, in fact when any contact with a government official is one of bribery, torture, theft, or worse. In a world, especially in Africa, that is deemed politically a non-liability/non-interest (see the US’s pusilianimous response by leaving Darfur to the UN), when they are left to die of AIDS on a scale unimagined in our minds as Western leaders mouth slogans about how it would be “hard” to get medicines to people and to get them to take their pill regimens, when there is so little in the way of Foreign Investment, there is only one reality to turn to for help: a god. A high god.
And the gods of traditional Africans have left them. Have been killed or gone away. Population dislocations, wars, de-colonialism, genocides, all these have been stronger than those traditional local animistic gods. Though one meets their followers and hears the echoes still, but the voice becomes fainter.
The traditional pre-colonial African world no longer is there–not the landscape, not the inner life world, and not the spirits who could be worshipped or be effective in those spheres.
To quote Jenkins again:
“The figures are startling. Between 1900 and 2000, the number of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million to over 360 million, fromm 10% of the population to 46%. If that is not, quantitatively, the largest religious change in human history in such a short period, I am at a loss to think of a rival…we can predict that by 2050, there should be around 3 billion Christians in the world, of whom only around 1/5 or fewer will be non-Hispanic whites.” (p.9)
The overwhelming bulk of that growth of course is in sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa remaining Muslim. And if add Islam into the mix, we see sub-Saharan Africa moving from an animist to a traditional world religious scheme.
Historically those religions have always been allied–in their mythic forms–with an imperial agenda. And that could bode ill for further violence between the two religions. Sadly, even in their points of union, there are awful platforms (from the Western pov). Anglican Primate of Nigeria Peter Akinola has supported the criminalization of homosexuality (with a possible death sentence) in Nigerian states under Islamic sharia. He said that homosexuality is evil from the point of view of the Bible, the Quran, and traditional African sensibilities (hence its a Western degraded colonial import).
But for Northern liberals who cry foul, they should recall that they have offered nothing to Africa to rely on. They are the descendents of colonialists, the diamonds on their wives fingers coming from AFrica mines, their international aid perverted by local strongmen, and the West’s continued negligence of the continent.
What other resources are there for these people to live their lives?
Minus economic connection/skills and security umbrellas provided by the West/China, who else can they call for help, if not God–how else will they know him (and its definitely a him in this case) without a text with clear specifications–or what they will interpret to be clear instructions anyway?
When we are righteous against someone, we forget that we already love that person.