Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 16, 2002
Southern Church renews faith
The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins, Oxford University Press: Toronto. 270 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Every so often a book surfaces that can change one's perspective significantly. In the opinion of this reviewer, The Next Christendom has the potential to do just that for Canadian Catholic readers.
Author Philip Jenkins believes that shifts in the religious nature of our planet over the past century are having and will continue to have a major impact on social, political and economic conditions. While we hear a lot today about the growth of Islam and the resistance to Christian faith by fundamentalists of all the great religions, a literal sea change has been taking place in terms of the global impact of Christianity.
In the process, the faith is becoming deeply embedded in many new and diverse forms of cultural expression and, at the same time, it is going through a period of radical transformation.
For several generations, overseas mission work has been highly suspect by many in our society. It is still frequently criticized for riding on the shirttails of colonialism with its attendant exploitation of many of the world's peoples.
But something ironic occurred as the colonial powers retreated, leaving in their wake a multitude of independent nations. Africans, Latin Americans and Asians themselves are redefining their received Christian faith. Indigenous Christians in many once colonized countries now embrace it with great fervour.
Over the past century, the centre of Christian gravity and influence has been shifting dramatically southward. Jenkins writes that large numbers of Christians in the South and East honour the missionary commitment to evangelization. This is resulting in explosive growth for Catholic and non-Catholic churches alike.
For example, in 1914, the total Catholic population of Africa stood at seven million. By the year 2000 that figure had increased to 120 million. Twenty-five years from now, the numbers will likely balloon to 228 million. Taking into consideration the factor of African population growth, this still represents a major religious transformation with few precedents in Church history.
The Christianity currently emerging from Africa, Latin America and Asia is more conservative than that practised in the West.
Most Christians in the South are poor. Their societies are more comfortable with authority and charisma and they show little interest in feminism or tolerance for homosexuality. Mary plays an important role in the spirituality of large numbers of southern Catholic Christians.
Jenkins believes that the emergence of the southern Church will provide an experience of renewed Christianity for the faithful everywhere.
Islam and Christianity stand as the two major religious options for humanity's future, he says. That means a growing risk of conflict, especially at strategic political fault lines.
There is an increasing need for interfaith understanding, since both religions are, by nature, competitive. Christians in the older, northern churches need to better understand non-Western faith expressions. Otherwise, internecine conflicts are bound to increase.
Most important of all, Christianity must be understood as a truly Catholic and planetary phenomenon.
The Next Christendom does not claim to provide the definitive future explanation for global Christianity. Yet, many of its scenarios are intriguingly believable and capable of altering a reader's perceptions in dramatic ways.
(Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)