Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Philip Jenkins at the Carnegie Council


On October 11th, OUP author Philip Jenkins had the honor of speaking before the Carnegie Council about his new book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. To read an excerpt of the new book click here. The program was part of the Carnegie Council’s ongoing series on religion and politics, which began about a year ago. Below we excerpt the beginning of Jenkins speech, to read the entire transcript please visit the Carnegie Council’s site.

Philip Jenkins: Since we are dealing with a religious theme, I thought I would begin by a prophecy, and a prophecy of the sort that is empirically verifiable. Back in the year 1640, a great Catholic saint, Saint Vincent de Paul, made a prophecy. He was writing at one of the worst times in European history.

1640 was probably the worst year in Europe before 1940; it was the year in which Protestants were killing Catholics, Catholics were killing Protestants, Christians were killing Jews, and so on. Many wondered if Europe could survive. What Saint Vincent remarked was, “Jesus said his church would last until the end of time, but he never mentioned the word Europe.” “The church of the future,” he said in 1640, “will be the church of Africa, of South America, of China and Japan.”

We can argue about Japan, though one of the greatest Christian writers of the 20th century was the Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo, but otherwise I suggest to you that that is an example of an empirically verifiable prophecy, because that is exactly what is happening. Today, if you look around the world, there are about 2 billion Christians. The largest contingent of those is still in Europe, with around 510 million, and Latin America second.

As we move towards the year 2025, Africa and Latin America should be in competition for the title of the continent with the largest number of Christians. But in the long run, as we move towards 2050, Africa wins; Christianity becomes predominantly a religion of Africa and the African Diaspora in North and South America and the Caribbean.

In fact, if you want to project the countries in the world that will have the largest numbers of Christians by 2050, here’s one projection. At the head of the list would still be the United States, followed, in no particular order, by Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and China. Let me give you a list of the countries that were not included in that list: Britain, France, Spain, Italy. Is anyone here old enough to remember something called “Western Christianity?”

I could deluge you with statistics, and I don’t want to do that, but some of them do really call out for citation.

One of my favorites is the figure for Christians in Africa. Back in 1900, there were 10 million Christians in Africa, representing about 10 percent of the population. By 2000, that had grown to 360 million, a little under half the population, which is quantitatively the largest religious change of any kind that has ever occurred anywhere. John Allen, the well-known Catholic journalist, has argued that the number of Catholics in Africa grows in the 20th century by 6,700 percent—which, as I tell my students, “For those of you with a humanities background, that’s more than double.” It’s a substantial increase.

Last year, there were more Catholic baptisms in the Philippines than in France, Spain, Italy, and Poland combined. When you look at those demographics, you begin to understand why if you go to Ireland these days you will see African priests in Ireland.

Well, if this was just a change of geography, a change of ethnicity, then it would be interesting. But I’m suggesting that it is rather more than that, because the kinds of Christianity that are growing in the Global South—a term by which I mean Africa, Asia, Latin America—are different from what we are used to in the Global North. They are much more enthusiastic; they are much more supernatural-oriented; they have much more of a belief in trans-stream vision, prophecy.

Now, you may say at this point, “But we could go not more than a mile from where we are right now and find churches like that,” and you are absolutely right. But I’m talking about what is the mainstream. Whatever denomination you look at in the Global South—whether it’s Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran—it has this kind of character.

If you go to Tanzania, for example, one of the leading religious figures in that nation is a man who is famous as a prophet and a healer. He is also a Lutheran bishop. This is not the Lutheranism of Garrison Keillor. This is a different kind of religious tradition.

In fact, in many ways—and I’ll come back to this in a second—the kind of Christianity we are seeing looks a great deal like the Islam of the Global South. By Islam, I do not mean the terrorist extremism of popular nightmare; I mean the ordinary, lived religion of hundreds of millions of Muslims.

There are actually quite close analogies there, but in Africa and Asia the two religions tend to influence each other. Christians in Africa, for example, are aware of the very high veneration that Muslims hold for the Qur’an, and they can have no less a veneration for their own sacred text.

There are also analogies. The Bible in the Global South is a book which often is not read; it is heard and recited, which actually takes us back to the oldest days of Christianity. Look at the New Testament and look how often you read the word “hear”: “blessed is he who hears,” not “he who reads.” Many people would argue that when you hear a message, as opposed to reading it, it appeals to different parts of the brain, it registers more, it carries more conviction.

Well, we’ve seen some very striking conflicts emerging between northern and southern Christianity, most tellingly in the Anglican Communion. As I’m sure you are aware, a couple of years ago the U.S. Episcopal Church ordained a gay bishop, much to the horror of the rest of the Anglican world in Africa and Asia, with its very rapidly growing numbers.

The language of that debate has since become quite venomous. As of a week or so ago, the latest statement of the Nigerian church on the subject of the American Episcopal Church said— and I quote loosely—”when a cancerous lump in the body has defied all treatment, the time has come for it to become excised immediately.” Some have suggested this is slightly lacking in Christian charity, but we can discuss this.

Why do the views of Nigeria matter? Because the Nigerian Anglican Church is now the center of the Anglican world. The U.S. Episcopal Church has about 2 million members. The Nigerian Catholic Church had 5 million back in 1975, it’s up to 20 million today, and they are forecasting 35 million by 2025. How long that graph goes up is anybody’s guess. It is growing very fast.

Of course, Nigeria is not the only great center of the Anglican world. There is Uganda, there is Kenya, there are all the other great Christian nations, a phrase I use without the slightest irony at all.

For many American liberals looking at, for example, the statements from Nigeria, the assumption must be that African Christianity, Asian Christianity, must represent some kind of primitive, uneducated, superstitious thing, maybe some kind of hangover from paganism. In fact, I want to suggest a very different interpretation. The Bible carries so much weight partly because it describes a world which is immediately recognizable for millions of residents of, certainly, Africa and Asia, which is what I will be talking about today.

If you read the Bible in such a way that you think you are getting almost a documentary description, that makes the moral messages much more credible and appealing. I think for many Americans, for example, reading the Old Testament, even if seen as a believing Christian, you cannot avoid the sense that this is a different, strange world; it is a world of nomads and polygamy and blood sacrifice. Why should moral strictures formed in such a world be applicable to a modern society?

If you are reading the Bible in Africa, however, it is exactly those features that give the Old Testament much of its appeal. I don’t know how many of you have seen some of the things that go around the Internet on this subject. One person, for example, will say, “The Book of Leviticus says that homosexuality is a dreadful crime.” Someone else will say, “Well yes, but Leviticus says many other things. Leviticus says that you can own slaves from neighboring nations. Why can’t I own Canadians?”

In Africa, that sort of question does not arise because, even if people do not live in a community that practices nomadism or polygamy or blood sacrifice, they know places very nearby that do.

I would quote, for example, a South African theologian by the name of Madipoane Masenya, who I emphasize is very much a liberal activist and feminist thinker. She makes a remark: “If any African finds it difficult to be at home with the Old Testament, they really need to examine themselves to see if they might not have lost their Africanness in some way.” Could such a statement possibly be made of Europeans or Americans or Canadians? I don’t think so.

To read the rest of Jenkin’s speech please visit the Carnegie Council’s site.

Philip Jenkins has written original pieces for the OUPblog in the past. Check some of them out:

Recent Comments

  1. BJ

    Hi! I thought you and your readers might be interested in some post-Easter news about Pope Benedict XVI…
    The Pope’s car is being auctioned off to raise money for Habitat for Humanity:
    The bidding is already more than $200,000! Personally, I think this is a really fun and creative way to raise
    money. The auction goes until April 14th if you and your readers want to check it out.

Comments are closed.