Jenkins is quite a busy man, isn’t he? He produces consistently excellent and even prescient books at a steady, dependable clip. His Hidden Gospels debunked DVC before the novel was even published. The Next Christendom has defined the discussion on global Christianity since its publication. One book of his that I particularly enjoyed is one that doesn’t seem to come up much – his Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality was a great jaunt through the uses and misuses of Native American spiritual traditions, with a clear eye to how Native Americans themselves have received the interest in their religions.

Jenkins’ new book, coming this fall, is called The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South.

As you might expect, the starting point is the disagreement between certain North American and European Anglicans and certain Anglicans in Africa and other parts of the world about how to understand the Scriptural injunctions against certain sexual behaviors, particularly homosexuality.

But what you might not expect is where Jenkins goes from there – you might expect a dissection of Scriptural scholarship, the uses and misuses of contemporary schools of scholarship, and so on. That’s not exactly what you get. What you get is much deeper than that, and in the end, more inspiring and challenging.

The question we’re asked to consider is, "Why do Christians of the Global South tend to read the Bible differently?" The answer some might give is that they’re not advanced enough, they don’t have the same kind of theological education that the North has. The scholarship hasn’t reached them yet.

Jenkins’ answer is essentially this: They read the Bible differently because they live it. Ordinary Christians of the Global South are not at a distance from the Scriptures – the world in which they live is echoed in the Scriptures in vivid, direct ways and in turn, the themes from the Scriptures they tend to emphasize deepen those connections. Jenkins looks at social structures, sensibilities about evil, about spirits, healing, miracles, wisdom (Proverbs is a very popular book in these areas), the challenges of starting new church communities (James figures in here, in a big way), not to mention images of agriculture, nomadic life, poverty, dependence and so on.

It’s quite a nuanced book, asking, for example, the Western reader to take a critical look at why we either spiritualize or ignore the wealth of discourse about healing that’s present in the New Testament. He invites us to look past our initial impressions of the Prosperity Gospel, so popular in some parts of the Global South, and to examine in on a deeper level. He points to the desperation so many constantly live with, the total unpredictability of life, the helplessness.

For a Northern world that enjoys health and wealth to a degree scarcely imagined by any previous society, it is perilously easy to despise believers who associate divine favor with full stomachs or access to the msot meager forms of schooling or health care; who seek miracles in order to flourish, or even survive. The Prosperity Gospel is an inevitable by-product of a church containing so many of the very poorest.

It’s a fascinating approach because while Jenkins begins with the headline-grabbing issue of homosexuality, he never returns to it. He doesn’t need to, for once you’ve worked through his presentation of the role of the Bible in Christian life in the Global South – as a liberating, powerful Word that directly relates and images the way people live and subsequently gives new, positive, redemptive shape to those lives, the whole language of "fundamentalism" and "conservative" becomes irrelevant. 

Jenkins is no romantic about anything, least of all about Christianity in the Global South. He points out its complexities, addresses the tensions and differences that lie between much of the popular reception of the Scriptures and the well-developed theologies of liberation and feminism that some African, South American and Asian academics produce (I think the book could use a bit more clarity in teasing these out, myself), and addresses inconsistencies, rogue interpretations, problematic consequences, particularly in regard to women (a mixed bag, since many women, particularly in charismatic movements, are empowered and liberated by Scripture, but others find themselves trodden more harshly underfoot by those who use Scripture to justify doing so)  and the real issue of selectivity in regard to texts.

But even with the ambiguities and questions about consequences, the question that grows and looms larger and larger as the book progresses is not, "How do you interpret the Bible," but rather, "How do you live with the Bible? How do we let ourselves be challenged by it?" The question is applicablity and immediacy.

Now, there’s a lot of possibilty for discussion here. There are, of course, many US Christian churches that do reject the liberal, mainline approach that distances us from Scripture and presents it as words to live by rather than a Word that speaks. There are Christian groups and traditions that don’t, for example, over-spiritualize healing or see evil as real. Of course, and they’re all over, in various permutations. But what Jenkins is getting at is grappling with the distance from the power of the text that is the consequence of a prosperous society with plenty of health care (even as it is inequitably distributed and increasingly expensive), and where no one lives as they do in the garbage dumps outside of Rio or the slums of Lagos. But does the dynamic go the other way as well – this Jenkins doesn’t really ask. Is it just that our lives are physically and psychologically at a distance from the world of the Old and New Testaments or does the dominant mode of Scriptural interpretation put us at a distance? Or is it an interplay between the two, just as the powerful, direct role of Scripture in the religious life of the Global South is the consequence of mutual reinforcement of life realities and intepretation.

It’s a good book, with much food for thought that offers a useful way of considering the different ways of understanding Scripture between North and South, the limitations of both and persistently challenges the Northern/Western Christian to confront the question, not of "Why do those people believe this about Scripture?" but rather, "Why don’t we?" It sets this crucial question of Scripture interpretation, that leads clergy from all denominations to say harsh things about each other, in a fascinating context that actually makes a lot of sense.

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