Monday, May 21, 2007

The New Faces of Christianity

Christianity Today has an interesting (& lengthy!) review of Philip Jenkins' new book, The New Faces of Christianity. I skimmed it the other day, but I'm just now working through reading the whole thing. I look forward to reading the whole book; in the meantime, here are a few paragraphs from the review that I've found to be particularly interesting:

One of the remarkable features of African and Asian biblical reading, Jenkins
says, is the affinity readers feel to the Old Testament. In contemporary northern churches, the traditional doctrine that the New Testament fulfills and builds upon the Old Testament has mutated into the idea that the New Testament
supersedes, even replaces, the Old Testament. But Africans find the Old Testament exciting and relevant. It deals with nomadic life, polygamy, rituals of sacrifice—their traditional world. Asians revere the Old Testament's wisdom literature, its "oriental" mind. On both continents, the Old Testament's denunciation of idolatry—a subject that usually gets modulated and symbolized in the North—is straight-up relevant and prophetic. Both Africans and Asians love the Book of Proverbs. Modern-minded northerners constantly look for fresh ways of saying things, which can make the biblical couplets sound trite and old. But in orally transmitted cultures, proverbs convey the wisdom of the ancients across generations. Biblical proverbs interweave almost seamlessly with traditional wise sayings.

There is much about the New Testament to love in the global South as well, and the favorite passages may surprise northerners. Northern commentators, especially since the Reformation, have wrestled with the place of the Epistle of James in the canon, with its apparent contradictions of the Pauline doctrines of salvation by faith alone. An "epistle of straw," Martin Luther called it. But James is wisdom literature, and as such, it may be the most powerful and revered New Testament book of them all for southern Christians. It is proverbial, practical, concrete, action-oriented, and directed to the poor and the distressed. Jenkins puts the entire epistle in an appendix and urges his readers to revisit it.

The Book of Revelation does not play well in northern, mainline contexts. It is redolent of weird last-days cults, it is filled with violent imagery and retribution, and it depicts the meltdown of human civilization, not its advance. But given the grim realities of many places in the global South, Jenkins observes, Revelation's "portrayal of secular states as deceptive, evil persecutors, and cities as the seats of demonic forces," gives it widespread appeal: "For many, left and right, it reads like a political science textbook." Revelation promises beleaguered believers that no matter what, God's justice will prevail. So in Uganda, Idi Amin stood in for the Beast; in China, believers gained hope during times of intense persecution; and in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Kairos Document of 1985 named the Nationalist regime the Antichrist.

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