Philip JENKINS, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. New York: Oxford University Press. 2006. pp. 200. ISBN-13:978-0-18-530065-9. $26.00.
Reviewed by Nathan KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY. 14618.

What do the majority of Christians believe in and about the bible? What does this belief tell us about Christianity? These are the questions Dr. Jenkins spends most of the book answering. Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His thesis is simple. Most Christians are not where they have been for the last two thousand years. A new Christianity is building in Africa, Asia, and South America. Old Christianity will give way to New Christianity. What these new Christians do and think about Christianity determines the future of Christianity. His approach, at least in this book, seems to equate Christianity with an Evangelical mode of biblical usage and Global Christianity with Africa-Asia. His idea of believing the bible is how books and verses of the bible are interpreted in, for the most part, Africa. Granted the actual limits of the book, whose title promises more than it delivers, what it does deliver is important for all the Christian churches in the North as well as the South.

The ordinary person’s world in Africa-Asia is closer to the world of biblical origins than our modern world. They have in common: a deep sense of the supernatural, the tribe, witchcraft, prophets, ancestors, sacrifice, priesthood, multiple gods, public displays of the Holy Spirit’s powers, plagues, a sense of powerlessness, and overwhelming manipulative military and political power. In the face of such hopelessness comes a need for apocalyptic – a conviction that God has triumphed and will triumph no matter how overwhelming the world’s evils are.

Into these two worlds comes the bible as a source of truth, a touchstone of the supernatural, and a hope for survival. Jenkins provides an almost verse for verse description of important Africa-Asian biblical passages and their interpretation. His index of biblical references enables the reader to easily cross reference what one is reading as well as search out the interpretation of favorite verses. Books most favored by Africa-Asia are: Exodus, Ruth, Psalms 23 and 91, the gospels, James, and Revelation. From within all the books Jenkins gleans the significant themes found among the African-Asian Christians which form the subheadings of most chapters. These themes are: Poor and rich, old and new, good and evil, persecution and vindication, women and men, north and south. Many of these themes, of course, are found in their favorite books.

In the Old Testament the Southern reader’s experience is described and interpreted. In Exodus is found a God of salvation and liberation. In Ruth is discovered people decimated by hunger and women surviving by trusting in each other and trusted kin. The theme of “shepherd” gains much attention throughout bible but Psalm 23 highlights the differences between Old Christianity and New Christianity. A psalm, much used at funerals in Old Christianity, is used at weddings in many former commonwealth African countries. Africans read this psalm as a claim to God’s sovereignty over all. No national leader, corporation, warlord may ever be allowed to be our shepherd.

Two favorite New Testament books of Africans may make those Christians who place them among the apocrypha uneasy: Hebrews and James. Jenkins provides a King James version of the Epistle of James in case the reader’s bible does not contain it. In an Africa where sacrifice and priests abound, the Epistle to the Hebrews and its description of Jesus as High Priest and his once and for all sacrifice is an easy fit. The same natural fit is found in James who emphasizes the importance of doing the right thing, the consequences of wasted richfulness, and the necessity of adhering to God’s law for salvation.

Of course the entire bible is used and understood in many different ways among these cultures as it has been used and understood by the many cultures that formed Old Christianity over the centuries. Jenkins does us the service of reviewing some of these older cultural interpretations as well as setting the background for the newer interpretations.

He does not hesitate to ask many important questions about his thesis. Three of these are: “Is this a Fundamentalist reading of the bible?” “Are these interpretations capable of being passed to the next generation?” “Does Christianity only exist among the underdeveloped countries?” Quick answers to the questions are: “No”, “Perhaps,” and “Probably not.” A Catholic reader, however, might reflect on how three ultramontanist versions of Catholicism have changed in the face of economic progress: Quebec, Ireland, and Poland. We can see, I think, new readings in these ancient but new Roman Catholic cultures that provide a hint of what will happen in Christian Africa-Asia as it continues to grow upon this Flat Earth where we now all live.

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