Book Review: The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins
Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity has written a unique book in the field of global Christian studies. More specifically, he is seeking to project the future of the Christian religion in light of global realities and current religious trends. Jenkins is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Historical and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute of Religion at Baylor University.
In The Next Christendom, Jenkins determines to confront two misconceptions concerning Christianity. First, that the Christian faith originates from and is synonymous with European and North American Christianity. And second, that the Christian religion is steadily declining in its influence and presence to the effect that Christianity is seeing its last days. Those who argue this second point might say, as the English idiom implies, that Christianity has “gone south.” The author in a sense agrees with this sentiment but in a more literal way. Christianity, Jenkins agues, is not disappearing but growing as the center and future of Christianity or as Jenkins calls it, Christendom, has and will continue to shift significantly toward the global South, namely the continents of Asia, Africa, and South America. By the use of historiography, demography, and other statistical data Jenkins makes the case that Christendom is alive and well and by significant leaps and bounds will continue as a global and institutional force. In sum, for Jenkins, Western Christianity is being superseded by the coming age of the Christian South.
The Main Argument
According to Jenkins the Christian story, as it is often told, is largely bound to the stories of European and North American civilizations. This has lead to the unfortunate circumscription of Christianity to the so called “white nations” and attributed to the identification of Christianity as primarily a Western religion. Viewed in this way, one is prone to project the future of Christianity in light of current religious trends domestic to the West. If this is the case, then Jenkins concludes that Christianity is steadily declining and that globally the faith of the future will most likely be Islam. However, contrary to seeing Christianity as ultimately determined by the fate of the West, the author argues that the weight of Christianity has been shifting away from Europe and southward toward the continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. If Jenkins is correct, then these southern continents will be the primary locations of the future Christian Church.
This global perspective is foundational for Jenkins’ thesis which is very optimistic about the future of Christianity. Jenkins contends that the shift toward Africa and Asia in particular is not a new venture for the Christian faith but a return to its origins. Prior to the rise of Islam in the seventh century, five centers of Christianity existed. These patriarchates were located in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Of the five patriarchates only one was established in the West, namely Rome. After the rise of Islam many of these Christian communities continued to survive for centuries—most notably Ethiopian, Egyptian, Indian, Syrian, and Chinese Churches continued to endure consistently—even when emerged in Muslim dominated territories. Once this is understood, the notion that European and American Christians brought the gospel to these regions, requires some qualification. Moreover, the idea that Christianity is a Western religion is seen to express a shallow and naive understanding of Christian origins, history, and the global presence of Christian groups and sects. Considering the above, Jenkins makes his case quite well that Christianity is neither defined by the West nor has it seeing its last days.
That Christianity is growing in the Southern continents is well established by Jenkins’ argument. This fact, however, raises a question concerning the future character of Southern Christianity and by consequence the Christianity of the future. What will be the doctrines, theologies, and ethics of these future Christians? What will be their main concerns and challenges? Through the observation and analysis of current trends in Southern Christianity, Jenkins concludes that, in general, the Christianity of the future will be supernaturally-oriented, conservative, and in some cases liberationist. An assertion of this nature is more bold than general predictions that Christianity will continue to grow in the global South. Jenkins is right to describe the current state of Southern Christianity, but he might be reaching too far when he assumes that this will continue to be the case. This is because the contingencies are more unstable given the continual interaction between Christianity as expressed in the Southern continents with the Christian Churches in Europe and North America. With globalization comes global communication and the influence of Western Christians could significantly influence the direction that Southern Christians go. Jenkins recognizes this difficulty and qualifies his assertion by also insisting that one should not assume a homogenous Christianity in these Southern continents. Indeed, we cannot expect African Christianity to develop in the same way as South American Christianity. Neither should we assume that they will be any less diverse than what we currently observe in the West.
With the question of the nature of the next Christendom, comes the more complex and theological consideration as to whether or not the future Christianity will be genuinely Christian at all. In other words, will the Christian faith as practiced in these Southern continents remain faithful to the core of the Christian faith. Answers will vary depending upon ones theological dispositions, but for the sake of developing his argument Jenkins assumes a broad definition of what makes someone a Christian. More specifically, he defines a Christian as one who describes themselves as such, believes that Jesus was the unique Son of God, and is the Messiah. The author comes off very sympathetic towards historical and contemporaneous Christian sects that many have discounted as genuinely Christian and deemed heretical.
Moreover, on several occasions Jenkins refers to the nature of Southern Christianity as conservative and fundamentalist, and yet he continues to describe the influence of the prosperity gospel, syncretism, and liberation theology. While these movements may hold to conservative positions on ethical issues, many would consider them less than conservative in a doctrinal sense. Similarly, Jenkins realizes that some of these emerging churches in the global South raise missiological questions about the limits of cultural accommodation. To put this more clearly, the question is, when does inculturation turn into the transformation of genuine Christianity into something else. In many cases pagan practices indigenous to the culture are synthesized into the development of native brands of Christianity. This poses a problem for projecting the future of Christianity as well as how it will be defined.
The questions The Next Christendom raises about the definition of Christianity, the fear of syncretism, and the limits of cultural accommodation might leave readers wondering what the author thinks about some of these crucial questions. Jenkins’ responses to these issues are at times necessarily broad, and at other times his answers are vague, elusive, or altogether missing. Similarly, one of the strange qualities of the book is that Jenkins leaves the reader wondering what to do in response to his argument. Essentially, one is left to draw their own conclusions as to what one should or can do in light of Jenkins’ assessment. By sidestepping some of these issues, Jenkins lays out his analysis in detail without getting lost in debates which makes the book valuable for a variety of readers who are left with enough room to answer certain questions and come up with their own responses.
The Next Christendom invites readers to broaden their perspective of the global presence of Christianity. Many readers will be surprised to learn about the rich history of Christianity in places such as Syria, India, and North Africa. In the final analysis, The Next Christendom is a needed book for the Western Church. It will encourage Western Christians to appreciate their Southern family, and it will help them to anticipate the needs and nature of Christians in the global South and perhaps forecast the future of Christianity. - Dan Marino