If you are like me, and dear reader, I always try to think the best of you so I will assume you are, you have likely never heard of Philip Jenkins. Nor had I before I was assigned to read and respond to an article by him titled Liberating Word, published in the magazine Christian Century on July 11, 2006. During his tenure as a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, he has written a number of books and articles on a variety of subjects, but Philip Jenkins is perhaps best known for his work on global Christianity and emerging religious movements.
Liberating Word is similarly focused on global Christianity, and takes a look at the differences and implications of a Globally Northern interpretation of the Bible (both the Old Testament and New) and a Globally Southern orthodoxy. Where the Global North, by which Jenkins primarily means the United States of America and Western Europe, tend to read the Bible contextually and interpretively, making allowances for shifts in culture and time, the Global South is generally much more literal. In the South, the Bible is read to be not just authoritative, but authentic and straight-forward. If one believes it is true, why should one need to interpret it for context or culture?
Jenkins’s concern seems to be twofold. First, he observes that Christianity is growing rapidly in the South, and that it is reasonable to assume that their theological beliefs will become the norm as the population grows that holds these beliefs. As such, the common reading of the Bible will shift from its Northern state of “interpret with cultural differences in mind” to “read literally and accept authoritatively.” We will no longer have normal theology and African theology, but rather there will someday be a North American theology that is considered different, if not deviant.
The second concern communicated in the article is that the North is simply out of touch with the Bible and its teachings due to the cultural and socioeconomic distance between us and the peasants often portrayed in the Good Book. Meanwhile, the Global South can not only empathize with the stories, they can directly apply the teachings to their situations. As Jenkins writes, “For many Americans and Europeans, not only are the societies in the Bible–in both testaments–distant in terms of time and place, but their everyday assumptions are all but incomprehensible. Yet exactly the issues that make the Bible a distant historical record for many Americans and Europeans keep it a living text in the churches of the global South.” (p. 22)
There are two primary themes on which Jenkins focuses to make his point. One is the broad theme of liberation, dealing with a host of issues familiar to the communities about which he is writing: poverty, debt, famine, urban crisis, racial and gender oppression, state brutality, persecution. (p. 23)
The second theme is more specific, focusing exclusively on Bible-inspired feminism, independence, and strength in the Global South.
Jenkins allows his concerns to be linked to the themes by implication, which is to say that he never outright states that people in the Global North fail to read, connect with, or understand these particular themes. His article conveys a sense of disappointment, however, and a belief that people in the Global North have completely missed the mark. That the Global South, in their simplicity and independence, have returned to a more pure reading of the Holy Scriptures, one that we cannot understand due to our wealth and luxurious upbringing.
On page 25, Jenkins begins a line of reasoning with a quote from David Martin that refers to the Book of Acts in the New Testament. “Pentecostalism gives the right and duty to speak to those always previously deemed unworthy on grounds of class, race, and gender. In the new dispensation, outsiders receive tongues of fire.” Jenkins extends on this quote in the next section of his article, relaying that, “Only when we see South Christianity on its own terms—as opposed to asking how it can contribute to our own debates—can we see how the emerging churches are formulating their own responses to social and religious questions, and how these issues are often viewed through a biblical lens. And often these responses do not fit well into our conventional ideological packages.”
At this point I can keep my incredulity in check no longer. In reading Philip Jenkins’s article about the Global South and their tremendously wonderful interpretations of the Bible, I cannot help but think that Philip Jenkins and I seem to have met and known two completely different sorts of Christians. It is almost as if there were multiple movements within the Church; Jenkins has yet to be introduced to those with whom I am familiar, and vice versa. As he builds his arguments and waxes poetic about the struggle of women in the Global South, Jenkins begins to parrot millenia old ideas as if they had been freshly discovered. He writes of the Bible being interpreted to encourage the poor to have hope as if the Sermon on the Mount had just been unearthed.
When Jenkins writes about African-American religious styles being regarded as marginal to mainstream American Christianity, I can understand what he is saying. Likewise, he observes that, when placed on a global scale, mainstream white American denominations are becoming the exception, rather than the rule. Similarly, I can nod in agreement with Jenkins on this point. My disagreement comes from his base premise: that this disconnect is forged by socioeconomic status and delineated by a magical North-South line.
The problem is that Philip Jenkins has become tunnel-visioned, not just in regards to the Globally Northern Church, but in regards to his target audience. Or, to put it more directly, on who his target audience should be. On page 27, Jenkins writes of an encounter with an “elderly and aristocratic Episcopalian woman” who praised his work and then immediately asked him how they could “fix this problem.” The people in the South clearly had a different and therefore wrong interpretation of the Bible, so what were we going to do about it?
By way of this example, Jenkins drives home the final nail in his argument: the Global North fails to understand not just the validity of the Global South’s beliefs, but also the power of those beliefs and the relative population differences between the Southern Church and the Northern Church. However, his entire argument is specious, based on a poor foundation and what I would ironically call a lack of global awareness.
There is a rising movement among both the Church and non-religious people in Western Europe that share the same commitments to social justice and conservative living that Jenkins has found in the Global South. Perhaps the “mainstream Christian church” is clueless, closed-minded, and hidebound, but I find that all irrelevant. To my mind, Jenkins is writing to a dying generation, attempting to grab them by the collar and urge them to turn the rudder of this ship a better direction, when the truth is that his target audience has already debarked.
It is becoming more widely recognized both within and without the Church that changes are coming, and fast. On March 10, 2009, the Christian Science Monitor published an article titled The Coming Evangelical Collapse. They were not predicting the death of Christianity, however, but a new chapter in its tale. The Church is changing, and a growing group of socially aware yet orthodoxically conservative Christians are making waves.
It would be easy to say that my criticisms arise due to the date of this article, but this movement is not so new. It has been gaining momentum for the last decade, at the least, and is quickly reaching critical mass. And though I do not necessarily align myself with this movement, I have become more familiar with it in recent years.
Knowing what I do of the theology and activism growing more prominent in the Globally Northern Church, I found myself reading Jenkins’s article and all his praise for the movements of the Global South and thinking, “Yes, yes, we’d agree with that. Yes, we have experienced poverty. Yes, we have read the Bible with an eye towards feminism. Yes, we too felt disenfranchised and encouraged by the books of Acts, James, and Timothy. Yes, yes, yes… we already know all this.”
As I said, perhaps Philip Jenkins and I simply know a different group of Christians. His article seems to target a group that is becoming increasingly endangered and, dare I say, irrelevant. I think that Jenkins has simply missed his mark, failing to see that while the Global North may truly have had a problem accepting the beliefs of the Global South two decades ago, that time has passedt. The movements emerging now have already picked up that playbook to absorb all they can, and are ready to move forward, arm in arm.