The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South

by Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins demonstrates how close the thought world of the global South is to that of the first century culture of the Bible.

Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016, 2006, 252 pages, $26.00.

—Reviewed by Dave Broucek, Centre for Lifelong Learning, The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), Wheaton, Illinois; and book review editor for EMQ.

Philip Jenkins demonstrates how close the thought world of the global South is to that of the first century culture of the Bible. Is it any wonder, then, that the Bible has such impact among its newer readers?

And is it any wonder that they read the Bible differently from “the privatized Christianity of a largely prosperous post-Enlightenment West?” Churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America, depending on their location, live with minority status, competing religions, dire poverty, unreliable, hostile or corrupt political powers, unjust economic structures, the threat and reality of persecution, famine and plague. And all live in a world populated with influential unseen spirits.

Social situations that Northern Christians picture from a distance are part of the lived reality of Southern Christians. The differences in attitudes toward an understanding of the Bible that Jenkins describes are not a simplistic bifurcation between the “liberal North” and the “conservative South.” Nor does Jenkins allow the dismissive rhetoric that portrays Southern biblical literalism as the mere product of missionary indoctrination. He sees far too much diversity, too much energy and too much creativity to allow for that reductionistic argument. From Jenkins, we understand why the Epistle of James—with its acknowledgement that “life is a vapor,” its prayer for healing and its warning against rich oppressors—is such a favored text. We see the attraction of the wisdom literature and the Old Testament as a whole. We see how texts that seem repressive to Northern minds actually bring liberation to Southern readers.

As we have come to expect from Jenkins, he has a scholar’s command of the literature, and through extensive quotations he lets Southern theologians speak with their own voice. He writes with grace and wry humor. While noncommittal about his own beliefs, he clearly gives sympathetic treatment to Southern Christianity, and he seems to delight in tweaking his Northern counterparts for their attitudes of superiority.

The very fact that the publishers place Psalm 91 and the Epistle of James as exhibits in Appendices indicates, perhaps, something about the target readers. But it would be a mistake for those of us who consider ourselves to be “Bible believers” to absolve ourselves of all need of Jenkins’ scholarship.

I remember the reaction of my students in a global South country when I explained to them (citing a well-respected commentary that I used in seminary) that, based on Greek vocabulary, the “angel” who released Peter from prison (Acts 12:6-10) could possibly have been a human agent sent by God rather than a heavenly being. At best I received a bemused reaction; they wondered why their teacher felt the need to import a non-supernatural character into a clearly supernatural story.
Jenkins’ book makes us ask, “Why, indeed?”

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Copyright © 2007 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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