Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New book by Phillip Jenkins

[This review was just published in DenverJournal.]

Philip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 252 pages with index.

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, is a prolific author and a clear, engaging writer who has addressed a host of different topics in his many books. Recently, however, he has captured the attention of many evangelicals because of two of his recent works. In 2001 he published Hidden Gospels, a blistering attack on revisionist interpretations of Jesus. He convincingly argues that headline-making scholars of the Jesus Seminar sort traded far more heavily on novelty and sensationalism than on critical and judicious scholarship. In 2002 he made even more waves with the publication of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, which brought acclaim from many sources, evangelical and otherwise. The thesis of that book—that Christianity is exploding in unprecedented and often heterodox ways outside of Europe and North America (that is, in “the global south”)—is further elaborated in this fascinating and important book on how these new expressions of Christianity are appropriating the Bible for themselves, often apart from Western influences. Jenkins is a Roman Catholic whose own theological perspective is fairly muted throughout the book. He writes more as a chronicler than as a theologian or philosopher, although his own take on the global south’s engagement with Scripture does come to surface in several places, as I will note below.

Jenkins begins by noting that African Anglicans are far more conservative than the bulk of their American counterparts. While American Anglicans (Episcopalians) may tolerate or endorse homosexual behavior, abortion, and other liberal shibboleths, African Anglicans take the Bible in a more straightforward way. Bishop Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya says, “Our understanding of the Bible is far different from them. We are two different churches.” Generally speaking, those in the global south—African or otherwise—approach the Bible without the secular influences that have pressed down on Western forms of Christianity. These Christians are thus far more open to the supernatural reports of Scripture—given the spiritual worldview of their native cultures--and take the Bible to have a supernatural power of its own not often considered by Western Christians, even of a more conservative bent.

After considering the more conservative theological approach of Christian movements in the global south in the chapter, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Jenkins presents chapters on the basic view of those in the global south on the efficacy of Scripture, the understanding of the Old Testament in light of the New, the understanding of poverty and wealth, the engagement of good and evil, their theology of persecution and vindication, the struggle between good and evil, and the relationship of women and men. He concludes with reflections on the global south’s understanding of Scripture can challenge American Christians.

Each chapter is richly illustrated with stories and ideas from Christians in Africa, South America, Korea, and elsewhere. Jenkins realizes that he must simplify and generalize considerably to speak of the global south’s take on the Bible, since these many Christians do not all speak with one voice. However, he does discern common themes and finds areas in which Western Christians can learn from these other believers. Jenkins is not romantic in his exposition, however. While his editorial voice is generally soft, he does highlight areas of concern for those in the West. For example, a pressing ethical question for Christians in much of Africa is polygamy. Besides the occasional headline in the United States about Mormon-influenced polygamists, this seldom gets our attention, and practically stimulates a protracted debate. When I participated in an apologetics question-answer session with a small group at Denver Seminary in 2004, the first question was asked by a student from Ghana. What should be done with a man who converts to Christianity who already has several wives? In my many years of teaching ethics, I had never spoken on that topic and had never been asked about it. The answer I gave, however, was far different from that given by many native Africans who read the stories of the polygamous patriarchs and find justification for polygamy as an ongoing institution. (Jesus speaks against this in Matthew 19:4-6 where he recognizes the monogamy as the original and blessed order of creation.)

While Jenkins seems skeptical of the realities of the demonic and the need for direct spiritual engagement with these realities, many in the global south see the situation very differently. In this sense, they are far closer to a biblical worldview than most American Christians who somehow read over or relativize the many biblical passages that speak to the realities of the struggle between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of darkness and which declare the cosmic victory of Jesus Christ (see Acts 13:1-12; Ephesians 6:10-18; Colossians 2:13-15, and so on). As Jenkins writes, “…precious little is left of the New Testament after we purge all mention of angels, demons, and spirits. Shorn of healing and miraculous cures, the four gospels would be a slim pamphlet indeed” (99). Jenkins reports that one Western Christian leader was surprised to find that upon his arrival in Africa he was expected to cast out demons, something with which he had no familiarity. While Jenkins’ handling of this material on the engagement of the supernatural is uneven (he does not fathom very clearly the dynamics of the occult world), a reader more deeply rooted in the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture should come away with a more profound respect for the workings of the spiritual world.

This important book deserves much more discussion, since Jenkins covers so much ground so provocatively. Jenkins is not, however, without his faults. For example, he makes several summary statements about Islam in relation to Christianity that reveal both his lack of awareness of Islam’s utter incompatibility with Christianity and Islam’s intrinsically militant nature. (For a better informed and insider perspective in Christianity and Islam see Mark Gabriel, Islam and Terrorism [Lake Mary, FL: Frontline, 2005].) Nevertheless, the book provides a needful cartography of the new, sprawling, global, Christian landscape. Given the expansion of Christian faith in the global south and its waning influence in the West, the global south’s perspective on Scripture should be of central concern to Christians who take the Bible seriously as the epistemological foundation for their faith. What can these sisters and brothers teach us? How might we help correct and instruct them? Where has their interpretation of Scripture fallen prey to syncretism? Where has ours fallen prey to secularism and its anti-supernatural prejudices?

Jenkins does not straightforwardly consider the objective authority and meaning of Scripture, although he mercifully does not adopt a postmodernist approach that dissolves every text into endless social contingencies. It is not clear whether he thinks that the Bible has a determinate meaning that is ascertainable through proper study (exegesis). However, if this is not the case, the danger is that Scripture becomes a wax nose that can be twisted into many different shapes. Scripture itself warns against this (Jeremiah 8:8; Matthew 15:1-4; 2 Peter 3:16). Therefore, in learning how nonwestern Christians approach the Bible, Western Christians should consider whether their interpretations and appropriations truly fit the objective meaning of the text. (On the philosophy of hermeneutics, see William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Expanded. [Nashville: Nelson Reference, 2004].) This engagement should be neither a call to unthinking conservatism (“We’ve got all the truth already, thank you.”) nor to unanchored liberalism (“It’s all up for grabs, since orthodoxy is what you make it.”). Rather, as a Puritan of old put it, “There may yet be more truth to break forth from God’s word.” Notice the emphasis on “truth” in that statement. The inspired truth has always been there; however, it may have gone unrecognized because of our cultural blinders. However, we will also find errors, ignorance, and turpitude in the global south, since they, too, “see only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But By considering how those in the global south are reading, believing, and applying the Bible, we may be able to find more truth in Scripture than we might have otherwise. (Consulting the new Africa Bible Commentary, Tokunboh Adeyemo ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006], which is edited and written by Africans with a uniformly high view of the Bible, can assist us to this end as well.)
Douglas Groothuis Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver SeminaryDecember 2006


Jeff Burton said...

Thank you for this review. I was engrossed by his last book. I hope to get to this one, as well. It puts me in mind of a striking passage from "Machete Season," which I just finished. During the Rwandan genocide, all able-bodied male Hutus were required to participate in the killings, on pain of death. One of the killers encountered three who refused. "They said that they were Pentecostalists, and Holy Scripture forbade them to kill men whom the Good Lord had created in his image." It was a tiny glimmer of hope in a book shot through with despair.

Emlyn said...

An interesting review of a fascinating book.
I have just listened to a lecture which Jenkins gave at Calvin College (
Two points arise from this:
1. Jenkins says that he is an Episcopalian (and asks for the audience's sympathy!), however the review describes him as a Roman Catholic.
2. You state that 'Jenkins seems skeptical of the realities of the demonic and the need for direct spiritual engagement with these realities'. On the basis of the lecture I am not at all sure that this is fair. I think that he describes the skepticism of Christians in the North regarding the demonic, but it seems to me that he is critical of this rather than approving.