The Next Christendom: Discussion 5

Today we look at Chapter 6 of our ongoing discussion on "The Next Christendom." Chapter 6 focuses on how the growth of Christianity in the "Southern" world (Brazil, China, countries in Africa, South Korea, etc.), are bringing new levels of diversity to Christianity.  It also means that Western (European/American) views of Christianity are being openly challenged.  The title chapter, "Coming to Terms" suggests that Western Christians must come to terms with this new Christianity, which in my book Passport of Faith (2006) I referred to as a spicier version of Christianity.

It is a non-Western faith more comfortable with the supernatural, prophecy, visions, ecstatic utterances, and healing.  It raises the question of how much of their Christianity is really just adopting cultural values.  Jenkins points out the obvious that Western Christianity has itself borrowed and been formed by Western and pagan culture.  He points out that St. Paul's Cathedral in London "almost certainly stands on the site of an ancient pagan structure. " There are many other examples one could go through such as this (p.111).

Inevitably local culture changes and adds flavor to Christianity.  He refers to the work of my former professor Lamin Sanneh at Yale who argues "that the simple decision to translate the scripture into local languages was in itself a key concession to native cultures, and one made by even the  most obtuse Northern missionaries (p. 113).

An example of a local tradition entering into Christian practice comes from Zaire/Congo.  Distinguished visitors were to be greeted by spear-bearers, and accordingly spears were added to the liturgical procession as a means of acknowledging the presence of God."  (p. 115).

Theology is equally formed by culture.  He points to African Christian theology being concerned about Jesus the healer (in a context of so much suffering) , and Latin American theology being concerned with the rights of the oppressed due to the history of oligarchy and oppression in that region.  I would suggest American theology is very interested in victory and growth/power.

The challenge becomes when the theology or traditions become more local than Christian/Biblical.  This is referred to as syncretism. He gives the example of a female Korean theologian who mixed Confucian/shaman ideas with Christianity (p.120).

While the Non-Western church can often be accused of the Western church as being accommodating to paganism (or syncretistic), the West can also do this. He gives a great examle on page 130 regarding an Anglican archbishop of Southeast Asia who traveled to Vancouver, BC and saw the totem poles on display in the city and viewed them as pagan idols which needed to be exorcised.  This alarmed the the Canadian Anglicans who were trying to cultivate a strong relationship with the Native American population and just viewed the totem poles as tourist objects.  But in reality, the non-Western archbishop was actually giving them the spiritual credence that they deserve as objects of veneration.

The chapter concludes by referring to the work of sociologists Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch.  They categorize institutional Christianity as "church" and refer to the kind of movements we see in the non-Western world as "sects." Sects are more authoritarian and have a high level of commitment.  Churches are more institutional--like an organization (one of many) that people belong to.  Do sects become more like churches over the long run?  Sure.

Patrick's comments***

This is a very important chapter---perhaps one of the most important in the whole book.  It raises very important issues that Westerners need to be aware of.

The impact of culture on Christianity is the subject of my next book if I ever get around to writing it.  American Christianity is uniquely imbued with all sorts of values that are more American than Christian, or at least which come from an American slant.  As I wrote "Mosaic," the Church of God certainly is full of cultural values that can be easily traced to the 19th Century values of the American Midwest--particularly it's peculiar obsession with "autonomy"--a word not even mentioned in the Bible, but which is certainly an enormous part of the foundation of the United States beginning with its independence from Britain.  "Don't Tread on Me" certainly resonates with the American mind in a way it would not with, say , the Japanese mind (it is quite the opposite in fact--group first).

As for syncretism, it seems pretty clear that there is a scale to this.  All cultures deal with it to some extent, but I actually think the New Testament is quite clear on what is not appropriate.  The diversity of the faith as seen in Acts 2, is reigned in quite a bit by the New Testament accounts of disharmony and violations that upset the church.  You don't hear that too often.  Once again, I think that's why Three World exists---to identify that Biblical center that exists within the Three different worlds of Christianity--amidst a sea of cultural differences.