15 June 2007

The Next Christendom

One of my brothers recently pointed me to Philip Jenkins' *The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,* a fascinating exploration of the shift of the nexus of world CHristianity from the northern to the southern hemisphere. The last two paragraphs of the book fascinate me, in light of the past year of my studies, which were focused on arguing that paradox (strength thru weakness) is the hermeneutical key to the theological unlocking of 2 Corinthians, rooted in Corinthian worldliness and climaxing in, and being crystallized by, 12:10 ('When I am weak, then I am strong'). Jenkins writes:

'Christianity is flourishing wonderfully among the poor and persecuted, while it atrophies among the rich and secure. Using the traditional Marxist view of religion as the opium of the masses, it would be tempting to draw the conclusion that the religion actually does have a connection to under-development and pre-modern cultural ways, and will disappear as society progresses. That conclusion would be fatuous, though, because very enthusiastic kinds of Christianity are also succeeding among professional and highly technologically oriented groups, notably around the Pacific Rim and in the United States. Yet the distribution of modern Christians might well show that the religion does succeed best when it takes very seriously the profound pessimism about the secular world that characterizes the New Testament. If it is not exactly a faith based on the experience of poverty and persecution, then at least it regards these things as normal and expected elements of life. That view is not derived from complex theological reasoning, but is rather a lesson drawn from lived experience [this is a false dichotomy and is, in my mind, patently theologically demonstrable in NT exegesis rooted in the crucifixion, but we appreciate Jenkins' point nonetheless]. Christianity certainly can succeed in other settings, even amid peace and prosperity, but perhaps it does become harder, as hard as passing through the eye of a needle.

'A healthy distrust of worldly power and success is all the more necessary given the remarkable reversals of Christian fortunes over the ages, and the number of times that the faith seemed on the verge of destruction. In 500, Christianity was the religion of empire and domination; in 1000, it was the stubborn faith of exploited subject peoples, or of barbarians on the irrelevant fringes of the great civilizations; in 1900, Christian powers rules the world. Knowing what the situation will be in 2100 or 2500 would take a truly inspired prophet. But if there is one overarching lesson from this record of changing fortunes, it is that (to adapt the famous adage about Russia) Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears. And whether we look backward or forward in history, we can see that time and again, Christianity demonstrates a breathtaking ability to transform weakness into strength.' (p. 220)

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