What does the future hold for Christianity? Many books have been written which argue that secular forces will cause Christianity to become more liberal and less literal. Such claims may be provocative and appealing, but they don't seem very credible in light of the actual demographic and geographic facts.
Philip Jenkins, however, does take those facts into account and comes up with a different vision of the future of Christianity - one which may not be pleasant to some readers, but which may also be more accurate. Below is the transcript of an interview he was kind enough to provide for this site...
1. What originally gave you the idea to write a book on this topic?
As so often in my life, it was being annoyed by an article in the New York Times, which imagined that the globalized world coming into being might be united by a kind of ideology reminiscent of Christianity in the Middle Ages, and wondering what this new Christendom might look like. And what would be that new ideology - radical environmentalism, perhaps with a mystical twist? The more I looked at the figures worldwide, the more I imagined a new Christendom that would be, well, Christendom, and the book began there.
Coincidentally, that was also about the time that the southern bishops massively outvoted liberal northerners in the Anglican Lambeth Conference, in a critical vote on gay rights, which to me seemed to be an omen of things to come. Southern Christians should not be taken for granted.
2. Why do you suppose this topic has received relatively little attention?
I think educated Westerners tend to have a certain a prejudice about Christianity - that it is the religion of the rich West, that where you find Christianity in Africa or Asia, it's an imperial hangover and really doesn't belong there, it's just tacked on. Connected with that is the idea that Christianity is interfering with authentic cultures. This is in contrast to Islam, which is seen as rooted in the South - though of course, it is no less an imported missionary religion, often established in areas that were previously christian.
Also, the Christianity that tends to be practiced in the global South is the kind of Christianity that Westerners don't feel any great sympathy for, at least in the media. Pentecostal, traditional Christianity is just not what we want to see. And as the famous phrase declares, if I hadn't believed it, I wouldn't have seen it with my own eyes. But the result is that vast religious changes were going unnoticed. In Africa, the number of Christians grew from ten million in 1900 to some 360 million today - and how many times did we hear about that sort of thing during the reviews of the 20th century at the turn of the millennium?
3. Why do you think the liberal, modernist varieties of Christianity have failed to take root in the southern hemisphere? Does this point to a problem inherent in liberal Christianity, or is it more a function of sociological and cultural differences? If the latter, to what extent is there any permanent "essence" of Christianity common to all social and cultural contexts?
Christianity is endlessly flexible -as incidentally is Islam, and that explains why both do so very well. But the emphases of Pentecostal or fundamentalist Christianity just make wonderful sense in the global south, especially in terms of healing and exorcism, which after all are the central concerns of much of the Bible. It also helps to remember that living in a southern society, with its fantastic contrasts of wealth and poverty, and its peasant foundations, the world of the bible reads like a contemporary document: they know this world very well, it makes great sense to them.
For many new believers, stories of miracles and healing are so self-evidently crucial to the early christian message that some suspicion must attach to any church that lacked these signs of power. As one Old Testament passage laments, "in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions." In my book, I quote a modern follower of the Shona Prophet Johane Masowe:
"When we were in these synagogues [the european churches] we used to read about the works of Jesus Christ... Cripples were made to walk and the dead were brought to life... Evil spirits driven out .... That was what was being done in Jerusalem. We Africans, however, who were being instructed by white people, never did anything like that.... We were taught to read the bible, but we ourselves never did what the people of the bible used to do."
The bible is a living document for them.
4. If the centers of power in Christianity move to the southern hemisphere, that means that the influence of traditional Christianity will weaken in the North - but what do you think will take its place? Do you think this will prove to be positive or negative for the North? Positive or negative for Christianity?
Christianity seems to be dying fast in europe, though not in America. Europe believes that it will move to a kind of benevolent secularism, but I wonder if it will be able to? The demographics are frightening, with a fast-shrinking white population and rapidly growing third world communities. I stress that the prospect of racial change does not disturb me - but I am alarmed by the image of a wealthy but elderly white society under siege from a young and relatively poor muslim underclass.
That sounds like the formula in Lebanon circa 1975. The threat of social conflict is truly frightening. I think that Europe might be a great missionary territory in years to come, with black and brown missionaries trying to convert whites. And these trends are happening already. The US is a great anomaly in all this, since it seems set to be the last great Western society in which Christianity retains hegemony, the default religion of most inhabitants.
5. In your book you explain that the growth of churches in the South may lead to increased (and increasingly violent) conflicts with Islam. Do you think that any of the ideologies of these churches (like the emphasis on apocalyptic beliefs) will be partially responsible for this? Is there anything which anyone (churches in the North, governments in the North or South) can do to try and prevent this?
I know enough history to know that over the centuries, neither religion has much to be proud of in terms of tolerance to the other, but today, the threat of violence and persecution seems to come overwhelmingly from the muslim side of the equation, regardless of the theologies of the individual christian churches. I think that both sides could live together happily, as they have long done in Africa, for instance, but there is the vast destabilizing factor of money pouring in from Muslim societies in the Middle East, above all Saudi Arabia, which presses local Muslims to adopt more extreme positions, and even to adopt sharia law.
This is what has done so much to destabilize Nigeria in the past decade. The Saudis have a great deal to answer for. I wish the US government would lower the boom on them for this, or else try to offer support to threatened Christians. In fact, I wish the US would declare that its national interest lay in opposing the forcible or military expansion of Islam in Africa or Asia, and that it would intervene to prevent this. If people want to convert to any religion of their own volition, or to abandon religion altogether, that is their own affair. But the kind of persecutions and forced conversions we see around the world today need to be confronted, and we are the only ones with the power to do it.
6. What has the reaction been to your book? Is there a difference in the reactions between liberal and conservative Christians? Between Christians in the northern and southern hemispheres?
I have been a little surprised how many people regard my projections as frightening, which they were certainly not meant to be. The prospect of growing fundamentalism worldwide alarms many, though it need not involve violence or intolerance. Some evangelicals have expressed excitement by the numbers I cite. My most alarming reaction was when someone praised me as a prophet. Professors are not used to this.
7. Since you wrote the original manuscript of your book, has anything happened which would either change or reinforce any of your predictions about the future of Christendom?
Perhaps surprisingly, no.
September 11th happened, which drew more attention to Islam worldwide - too much attention in some ways, because it distracts attention from the southern Christian presence. My main problem is that too little has changed - Christians are still being massacred and persecuted, and still Western governments seem not to care.
Learn more about Philip Jenkins' book!