Book Review - The rise of anti-Western Christianity

The Rise Of Anti-Western Christianity

From the desk of Matthew Roberts on Sat, 2011-02-26 16:41

During Pope Benedict XVI's trip to London this September, Cardinal Walter Kasper noted two things about London: it's secular and parts of it resemble a Third World country. While the politically correct were quick to condemn Kasper and the Vatican was even quicker to exhibit its pro-Third World, anti-racism bona fides, Kasper's two statements taken together are noteworthy in that they demonstrate two antagonistic aspects of the modern world. The First World is secular; the Third World is religious.

How can London be both? What happens when you mix First World secularism and Third World religion? In particular, what happens when you import the Third World to the First – as in London? Often, the Third World tries to convert the First, regardless if the evangelizers are Christian or Muslim. While Westerns may be more shocked by Third World Muslims because they expect them to be different, they often are more disoriented by Third World Christians because they are so different from what they expect. The Christianity that the Third World brings to the West is unlike anything ever seen before – just as alien as Islam.

Highlighting this realization is the acknowledgement that Christianity is fast becoming a non-Western religion. Although not the first to make the point, and certainly not the last, Philip Jenkin's The Next Christendom popularized the notion that Christianity is undergoing a metamorphosis. Jenkins, an Englishman and the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of the Humanities at Penn State University, maintains that the heart of Christianity soon will be, if it is not already, Africa and Latin America. And the shift is not merely a demographic one, but an ideological one as well. Various African and Latin American expressions of Christianity are currently eclipsing the European version of Christianity. Eight years out from the first publication of The Next Christendom, now with a revised and expanded edition and two accompanying books in the trilogy, Jenkins' observations in the first edition still hold true, a fact that he seems to celebrate in a pointedly anti-Western tone.

The Masque of Africa, a travel book by award-winning Indian-Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul, although really about traditional African belief and not Christianity per se, often underscores Jenkins' thesis, at least as it relates to Africa. Despite the conversions to Christianity, Naipaul maintains, the older world of African animism and magic persists, influencing and shaping modern belief systems.

Occidental Christians assume that Christianity is Western. After all, "Europe is the faith", asserted Hillaire Belloc. Although by birth a Middle Eastern religion, Christianity, at least as Westerners know it, soon became a European religion in the sense that it melded with various forms of European paganism. Christianity, the story runs, cannot exist in a vacuum. It conforms to the various cultures with which it comes in contact. In its European manifestation (after syncretization with Celtic, Germanic, Greek and Roman paganism), Western Christianity became the religious expression we know today. Comfortable with pagan-Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, most Westerners could not conceive of Christianity any other way. (By "Westerner" is meant a European or someone of the European Diaspora.)

Yet Jenkins maintains this is not the entire picture. The idea of "Western Christianity," he maintains, "distorts the true pattern of the religion's development over time". First, even during medieval Europe (which is heralded as the epitome of European Christendom), many Christians lived outside Europe and practiced other forms of Christianity. To the Armenian or Ethiopian Christian, European Christianity would have seemed odd. Furthermore, in more recent times, the missionary work of modern Europe has laid the foundation for a new type of Christianity that is different from anything that preceded it.

If "Europe is the faith" for Western Christianity, then, Jenkins maintains, "Africa is the faith" for the coming Christianity. In 1900, Europe possessed two-thirds of the world's Christians. By 2025, that number will fall below 20%, with most Christians living in what Jenkins calls the "Global South", largely a proxy term for "Third World". The Global South could be thought of as slightly modified Gondwanaland, including Africa, Latin America, Philippines, southeast Asia/India, etc. This Global South, not the West, will be the new heart of Christendom.

The statistics are compelling. By 2025, nearly 75% of the world's Catholics will be non-Western (mostly African and mestizo). At present, Nigeria has the world's largest Catholic theological school. Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro may be the world's largest Catholic church. India has more Christians than most Western nations. By 2050, more than 80% of Catholics in the U.S. will be of non-Western (often mestizo) origins. By 2050, only a small fraction of Anglicans will be English or of the European Diaspora. Nigeria, not England, is the new heart of Anglican Christianity. Lutherans, Presbyterians and other mainstream denominations find their chief centres of growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Then there are the ever-growing Pentecostal and other indigenous Christian churches. Pentecostals have made tremendous inroads in Latin America, and churches like the Zion Christian Church have grown tremendously in South Africa. The Zion Christian Church attracts over a million pilgrims every Easter (more than greet the Pope in St. Peter's Square on Easter mornings).

But this is not simply a matter of static (European) Christianity being implemented by people of other races. Christianity itself is radically changing. The New Christendom is "no mirror image of the Old. It is a truly new and developing entity". Jenkins writes:

"As Christianity moves South, it is in some ways returning to its roots. To use the intriguing description offered by Ghanaian scholar Kwame Bediako, what we are now witnessing is 'the renewal of a non-Western religion.'"

As once Europeans appropriated Christian iconography as their own, so does the New Christianity in Latin America, where images are filtered through the lens of mestizo identity. The Catholic Church has proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe as the patron of all the Americas. Probably the result of syncretization with the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, the Guadalupe Virgin, the dark one (La Morena) as she is called, looks like the local Americanian andmestizo populations, not like Europeans. Likewise, images of the Cuban La Caridad show her "appearing to rescue black and mestizo sailors". In Equador, the Virgin of El Quinche is popular "because her skin color is that of the local mestizos". "Ethnically as much as spiritually," these non-European Virgins are their Virgins. (1).

Mestizo identity, writes Jenkins, is important to understanding this new Catholicism in Latin America. He writes:

"[A key concept among Latinos] is that of mestizaje, 'mixed-ness', that status of being mestizo or mixed blood. In contemporary theology,mestizaje is so critical because it transcends traditional racial hierarchies. It thus comes closer to the New Testament goal of a society without racial privilege or domination, in there is neither Jew nor Greek, Latino nor Anglo. And while mixed-race people were traditionally marginalized and despised, newer theologians see this status as uniquely privileged.... [In The Future is Mestizo, Virgilio Elizondo] presents Jesus as a mestizo son of Galilee's mixed and marginalized society, who enters the great city of Jerusalem in order to challenge its wealth, to confront the racial arrogance of the pure-blooded elite."

Such racial overtures also exist among African Christians and have for a very long time. Kimpa Vita, 17th-century Christian convert in the Kongo, had a dream that Jesus was a black Kongolese and was told that black Christians need to find their own way to God, even if it meant using practices condemned by white priests. Although burned as a heretic and witch, she was ahead of her time and serves as a model for the present trajectory of African Christianity distancing itself from a dying Western Christianity. A Nigerian

Pentecostal pastor has proclaimed:

"This is the time of the African. The Europeans have had their time, the Asians have had their time, the Americans have had their time. The black man is going to read the last Gospel before the coming of Christ..... It's our time."

As one would expect, these stressed racial differences carry over into theology. The types of Christianity that thrive in the South, Jenkins maintains, are more concerned with the

"immediate workings of the supernatural, through prophecy, visions, ecstatic utterances, and healing."

Charismatic religion, even for Catholicism, is part of the new landscape. John Allen said

"As Roman Catholicism in the future speaks with an African and Hispanic accent, it will also speak in tongues."

Snake handlers and faith healers may be the new norm for Catholicism as for Pentecostalism.

Although often initially converted by Westerners, Third World congregations follow a typical pattern, argues Jenkins:

"An individual is enthusiastically converted through one of the mission churches, from which he or commonly she is gradually estranged. The division might arise over issues of church practice, usually the integration of native practices. The individual receives what is taken as a special instruction from God, commonly in a trance or vision. This event is a close imitation of one of the well-known New Testament scenes in which God speaks directly to his people, as at Pentecost or on the road to Damascus."

Jenkins notes that once Christianity is accepted by a new people, they typically then will "purge away from that essential truth [of] the foreign cultural trappings with which it was originally presented", to let it speak anew in African, Asian or mestizo terms. For instance, in India, local theologians emphasize non-Western elements of Christianity complementary to indigenous religions. In Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's River Between contains a vision of Jesus where a new synthesis demands that Christianity be acclimatized to African ways. Although there are kernels of truth in the white man's religion, it

"...needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal. And that eternal that was the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people."

Expunging its European elements, Christianity becomes animated by new substrata of indigenous beliefs. The former dean of a university of Gabon remarked to V.S. Naipaul,

"The new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top. Inside us is the forest [the magical world of their ancestors]."

Naipaul writes that although nominally Christian, families still honour the old African ways, which perhaps are more influential than the formal outer faith. The interchange between Christianity and African animism might involve Christianity making "mellower and less warlike" African beliefs, but with an inevitable mixing of the two. Naipaul reports the characterization by a Ghanaian man named Pa-boh:

"The supreme being [Jehovah] is very powerful and is not to be used in daily rituals. The others, spirits and gods and so on, are invoked daily. They have physical representations: they can be trees, stumps, stools, carved idols, rivers and pools.... These deities have their own spokesmen, who are high priests and prophetesses. They have to be initiated into the cults. Both the high priests and prophetesses are possessed.... If the prophetesses take up an issue they go into frenzy; they tear their upper clothes off and bare their breasts, and start talking in unknown languages."

Naipaul was surprised to find that Pa-boh, given his enthusiasm for African animism, was Christian with a Christian grandfather running a local church.

Unsurprisingly, liturgies are fast changing across the Global South. Pentecostal customs, such as spontaneous dancing and emotional expressions, are now the norm. Such zeal is imported to Catholicism, with Catholic centres offering opportunities to "pray, weep and dance". Vernacular prayers and liturgies are now associated with new places, like Guadalupe discussed above or Ekuphakameni in South Africa, which may become the modern Lourdes or Walsingham.

Ancestor worship (which was not uncommon in European paganism) has been incorporated into much African Christianity. Jenkins notes:

"[The African] Jesus exercises for all people the same care and love that the ancestor of a specific tribe would for his or her descendants. Integrating the idea of ancestors into the liturgy has been the primary goal of the newer African Catholic rites."

While this may seem odd to Westerners (many of whom have not practiced ancestor worship for at least 1,500 years), Jenkins notes that ancestor-worship sycretism is quite normal in Africa and Asia. In 2000, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bloemfontein, South Africa, not only allowed Africans to honour their ancestors through blood libations, but also permitted the ritual sacrifice of sheep and cows in the Mass.

Many Mexicans also claim blood ties to Jesus. The Tarahumara, for instance, believe that Amerindians descend from Jesus, while all non-Amerindians are the offspring of Satan. Likewise, throughout Latin America, there are various prayers and liturgies that include the veneration of older ancestral deities alongside Jesus (2).

Although Third World Christianity at present may be ethnocentric, some people hope it will eventually become more universalist (ie, more liberal), as Western Christianity has become. But there is no reason to assume that the development of the new Christendom will mirror Western Christianity. For all we know, Third World Christianity could become more ethnocentric, more anti-Western, and privilege non-whiteness even more. 

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