This review was published in Quadrant, March 2008
WHAT IS THE MOST successful social movement of the twentieth century? Which religion has the most new members each year?
The answers are: Pentecostalism—which grew from a few adherents in 1901 to hundreds of millions by 2000—and Christianity—which is expanding every bit as fast as Islam from a bigger base.
These answers are only startling if one has a Western-centric view of Christianity. Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom clearly shows how distorted Western views of Christianity (and religion generally) typically are. I do not believe I have read a more enlightening, or more disturbing, book on the contemporary world. Monotheism—belief in the One God, the Middle East's most powerful and enduring contribution to human thought—is the most successful set of beliefs in human history. And it is still gaining strength across the globe.
Its most spectacular growth is in the form of Pentecostalism, which grew out of Methodism and stresses a deeply personal sense of religious involvement based on the infusion of the Holy Spirit as per the first (Christian) Pentecost in the Book of Acts. In Jenkins' words:
In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith-healing, exorcism and dream visions are all basic components of religious sensibility.But the appeal of a religious movement that deliberately seeks to recreate the religious sensibility of the first Christians is simply beyond the ken of those who presume the retreat of religious feeling to be a necessary and natural part of modernity. That appeal disconcerts established churches as much as complacent secularists—in the words of a commentator on Latin America:
the Catholic Church has chosen the poor, but the poor chose the Pentecostals.A basic mistake—as Jenkins regularly points out—is to see Christianity as a Western or European phenomenon. Thus historical Muslim religious aggression (unlike the much more minor Crusades) is not seen as problematic because we forget the history of African and Asian Christianity.
Meanwhile, Christianity has spread most dramatically in Africa since the end of Western colonialism. During the 1960s, Christians came to outnumber Muslims in Africa for the first time since probably the thirteenth century. (What Jenkins actually writes is: "Sometime in the 1960s, another historic landmark occurred, when Christians first outnumbered Muslims in Africa," which, as his own historical survey makes clear, is a bit of a howler. Christians outnumbered Muslims in Africa until some centuries after the Muslim conquest of North Africa.)
Migrants are also a Christianising influence in Western countries.
The disturbing elements in the continuing advance of monotheism are: (1) the possibility of huge religious wars; (2) the very authoritarian views of gender and sexuality that dominate non-Western Christianity; and (3) the lack of support for the separation of church and state. What Mark Lilla calls political theology—the grounding of political arguments in an image of the nexus between the divine, the human and the world—may be making a comeback way beyond Islam.
While Jenkins discusses current realities and their possibilities, at the core of the book is a very enlightening discussion of historical trends. After establishing the scale of the Christianising movement going on in the developing world, Jenkins points out that Christianity has always been a religion in geographical motion. An Asiatic and African religion in its beginnings, it slowly shifted to Europe as its centre (with beleaguered outliers such as Ethiopia) and now has shifted centre again to Latin America, Africa and Asia. Significant Christian communities persist within Islamic countries, Arab Christians having been disproportionately important in nationalist and other secular movements.
Jenkins examines the missionary efforts and the ways Christianity became "localised", then looks at demographic patterns and trends, pointing out that they are subject to potential fluctuations.
Jenkins takes us through just what taking root in a society means. Western concepts of Christianity tend to be based on a very Europeanised view. But, as Christianity takes root in local societies, it evolves in ways that resonate with that society—just as it did in Europe. Indeed, healing and prophets are how Christianity originally started and spread. Pentecostalism (which may have one billion adherents by 2050) has much the same appeal of early Christianity and in broadly similar social circumstances.
Jenkins examines the possible political impact of these changes, as "Southern" Christianity does not have Western Christianity's reticence about being political. After all, that reticence grew out of the experience of bitter religious wars and civil strife. Political theology is natural to human civilisations in general and Christianity in particular.
WHICH LEADS to the possibility of strife between religions—particularly with Islam. While there are exceptions—most notoriously, Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims—contemporary inter-religion violence is dominated by Muslim violence against non-Muslims. Muslim countries are typically more religiously intolerant than Christian countries of comparable levels of income. Jenkins's matter-of-factness is particularly admirable here.
That Islam is a one-way exercise (you may enter but not leave) increases the potential grounds of conflict. (Jenkins never says directly, but there is a clear implication in The Next Christendom that if Islam was less hostile to conversion, Christianity would be making advances within Islam also.) That there is a large overlap in the religions—for example, the Qu'ran refers to Mary more than the New Testament does, and it is Jesus whose Second Coming will mean the end of Time—can embitter or bridge the faiths, depending on circumstances.
Jenkins also canvasses the potential for violence from and with other religions. The possibilities of strife and misunderstanding will, he says, be aggravated if people in the West base their views on ignorance and false expectations:
Modern Western media generally do an awful job of reporting on religious realities, even in their own societies, leading to the possibility that [t]he North would define itself against Christianity,the faith of a very large and increasing proportion of the developing world. Indeed, Jenkins sketches out more than one scenario where the West—wishing to preserve access to oil or resisting Chinese interventions in defence of (largely Christian) Chinese minorities—supports Muslims against Christians.
Jenkins stresses that the versions of Christianity that flourish in the developing world are, to Western eyes, very conservative (that is, authoritarian and patriarchal) on matters of gender and sexuality. And, increasingly, they have the numbers in Christianity. Jenkins makes it clear that the Catholic Church is going to remain a very socially conservative organisation: "Of course the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are so very conservative: they can count." It also means that migrants from the developing world to the West are less likely to have social attitudes that progressivists in the West would welcome.
In his final chapter, Jenkins goes over the remarkable history of Christianity, its ability to move, evolve and survive. It is the largest religion on the planet and is well set to remain so, even to increase its dominance.
I was, before reading The Next Christendom, vaguely aware that Christianity was advancing outside the developed world. Philip Jenkins' profoundly enlightening study shows just what an understatement that is. Intellectuals in the West have been somewhat disconcerted by the "disturbing" strength of religious feeling within their own societies and the re-emergence of the salience of religious belief. This is not a diminishing but an increasing trend. Much more such disconcertion is likely. The Next Christendom is one of those necessary books for understanding the world we live in.