Christianity: An Email Dialogue Part One
Today’s post requires a lengthier introduction than we normally provide here. I apologize for being verbose but I wanted to make sure you all understood just how exciting the following exchange is. It is the first, of hopefully many, collaborations with another publishing house (Princeton University Press).Way back when, at the end of June, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entitled “2 Books Analyze the Alliances Between Conservative Christians and African Churches,” comparing the work of Miranda Hassett and Philip Jenkins. After reading the article we thought it would be great to get Hassett and Jenkins together in a virtual interview. We put them in touch with each other, and allowed each to ask the other questions. The fascinating results are below. Be sure to come back tomorrow for part two!
In case you aren’t familiar with these authors here is a quick bio to orient you.
Miranda Hassett is the author of Anglican Communion in Crisis (Princeton University Press), which looks at how a new alliance between conservative American Episcopalians and African Anglicans is transforming conflicts within the Anglican church. The book is based on wide research, interviews with key participants and observers, and months Hassett spent in a southern U.S. parish of the Episcopal Church of Rwanda and in Anglican communities in Uganda.
Philip Jenkins, an OUPblog regular, is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University and the author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South and God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis. His books offer a historically grounded appraisal of the future of Christianity in a rapidly changing world.
Miranda Hassett writing to Philip Jenkins.
You position your work as serious, secular, religio-socio geopolitical scholarship, and rightly so. What I find interesting is the way your work has been taken up by a wide range of American evangelical Christians as support for their moral and theological worldview. This really jumped out at me when I was looking at the Amazon reviews of The New Faces Of Christianity – a very high proportion of the reviewers seemed to be evangelical Christians who found hope and inspiration in the book’s message about Christianity in the global South. It seems that you are almost a cult figure in certain evangelical circles! As you observe, none of this is perhaps surprising, but it still seems to me that it’s an interesting situation for you to be in. I suppose what I’m really hoping for are your reflections, as a scholar of Christianity, on being viewed in such a prophetic light by certain constituencies of your readership.
Jenkins in response Hassett.
I appreciate the chance to discuss Miranda Hassett’s excellent book, which comments at some length on my own work, especially The Next Christendom. I view her book very highly for its research and for the quality of her writing, although I think she oversimplifies my argument somewhat. Anyway, we can explore that point in this discussion.
As to your question, I was quite impressed by how my work was actually taken up by a variety of groups across the political/ecclesiastical spectrum, not just conservatives (and by no means only Episcopalians). I was even invited to speak at the National Cathedral by Washington’s bishop John Chane, who nobody has ever accused of being a conservative! I hope I do not misrepresent him when I say that neither he is an evangelical.
What these different groups usually wanted to discuss was the fundamental demographic shift in the composition of global Christianity, which frankly does not seem to be a controversial point. The change has happened and will continue to happen. Barring some kind of global catastrophe or mass religious persecution, it seems unarguable that by 2030 or so, a large percentage of the world’s Christians will be in the Global South – Africa, Asia, Latin America – and many other Christians residing in the Global North will have “Southern” roots. I am thinking for instance of Latino immigrants in North America, or Africans in Europe. We are just beginning to understand the implications of this change, above all the vast imbalance between where the numbers are in world Christianity, and where the power and resources lie.
That point is however distinct from the other issue of religious conservatism, which is a concept that demands definition. Some readers might have understood me to say that global South churches were “conservative” in the precise American or European sense, and that statement would be half-correct. What I said, and what I would repeat here, is that many such churches do have a strongly traditional approach to issues of sexual morality, especially in critical areas like homosexuality, and on issues of scriptural authority and orthodoxy. That is especially true of some churches of the Anglican Communion. Having said that, the same churches are anything but conservative on economic issues, social justice matters, and (often) questions of women’s roles. (I discuss these distinctions much more fully in my 2006 book The New Faces of Christianity.)
Just why that conservatism exists on some issues is an interesting question. For a great many African or Asian Christians (by no means all), faith is a relatively new presence, and that novelty has an impact on how people believe. I am thinking here of Weber’s church-sect typology: new religious bodies made up chiefly of adult converts tend to act very differently from older-established churches into which people are born, and that difference will often survive for a generation or two. When we also take into account the strong sense of identification that many African and Asian Christians have for the world of the Bible, that tends to translate into a greater respect for scriptural authority.
So to give a short answer: conservative Episcopalians would be absolutely right to read me as saying that a massive demographic shift was in progress within the Anglican Communion, and that many of the most rapidly expanding churches hold conservative views on questions close to their hearts. They would be wrong if they thought I said that global South churches were uniform in their opinions, or that they followed any kind of strict across-the-board ideological conservatism.