Saturday, November 27, 2010

A review of "The Next Christendom" by Philip Jenkins

“Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears” says Philip Jenkins as he ends this important book on global religious trends. Whatever might be the presence of religion in one’s life, the numbers cannot be ignored. Christianity has gone through its largest boom period in history over the last 100 years, and the pace is only quickening. Due to an often patronizing Eurocentric viewpoint, this fact is usually overlooked in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the new Christians reside in the global Southern Hemisphere, and Jenkins points out that that half of the world is experiencing a Christianity that is inconvenient and uncomfortable to the modern beliefs of Northerners.

This becomes a touchy subject as the very term “modernity” or “post-modernity” is called into question. “Modernity” according to whom? The increasingly smaller percentage of “enlightened” secularists or religious pluralists in the North? Or “modernity” as it relates to pure numbers of people? If we are looking at numbers alone, then Christianity and Islam HAVE to be understood and incorporated into any complete understanding of the world. Jenkins lays out the case that these trends are not going away, and that this century should see even greater growth in both religions than the last.

Jenkins does a decent job of staying as neutral as possible on a very passionate, charged topic, although his political conservatism does come through at times…as in the reasons for the existence of the Jewish state, and his downplaying of Islamic intolerance in the Western media. Where he is right on point is in his description of the “new” Southern Christianity looking nothing like what the North has experienced in recent decades. Parts of this new Christianity focus on the teachings of Jesus concerning oppression and poverty (in the North considered progressive socially), while remaining ultra-conservative on issues of gender and sexual orientation. There is undoubtedly multiple arguments to the effect that this trend cannot last when the “Southern Hemisphere gets more educated”, but there is a danger in looking down one’s nose through this line of thinking.

This book struck me in a number of ways. First, it was humbling. While I try to be as well-informed as possible, I realized how much I lacked empathy when it came to the reality of religion in the world. Second, I realized that my continuing quest to identify with a constantly changing world was to re-visit the teachings of my youth…even if I no longer subscribe to that religion (or any religion). If I am to relate to future generations of world citizens, I need to understand the various new forms of “Southern Hemisphere” Christianity just as much as I attempt to learn as much as possible about Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. Re-visiting new ways of looking at old Christianity is just not trendy in Europe and North America. However, to ignore those forms of Christianity is to ignore what are the largest current forms of religion on the planet, and an incarnation of Christianity that is on an unbelievable upswing. No, religion is not disappearing anytime soon, as much as those in the West depict its demise. We can either learn more about how these others think, or slowly become more and more uninformed and ultimately out of touch by burying our heads in the sand.

No comments: