January 21, 2008

The New Faces of Christianity 2: Power in the Book

Today the ACFAR Network continues reading through The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South by Philip Jenkins. If you haven't bought the book or signed up yet, it is not too late to join! This week we are discussing chapter 2: "Power in the Book."


After differentiating between the Christianity of the West (Northern liberals) and the Christianity of the Global South (Southern conservatives), Jenkins examines why the South has such a high view of biblical authority. While part of the answer lies in the fact that the missionaries who brought Christianity to these areas were themselves generally conservative, it would be too simplistic to suggest that this foreign influence is the main reason the Global South holds to a high view of Scripture. He writes, "The communities to whom such ideas are targeted might be poor, but they do not constitute a cultural blank slate on which foreign notions can be inscribed at will" (21).

So then, what else can explain the conservatism of the South? First, the growing importance of the written word brought with it the advance of Christian Scripture. This is especially seen through the progress of literacy and the translation of the Bible into native languages. Second, the centrality of the public reading of Scripture leads to a different kind of reception and impact. Third, the frequent retelling of the Bible's stories and narratives as well as the practice of drama bring the Bible alive to those in the Global South. Fourth, music has been effectively used to internalize Bible passages, stories, and doctrines. When taken together, all of these factors have lead to a widespread belief in the absolute authority of Scripture.

This high view of Scripture defines how the Bible is understood. Jenkins says,
If every word is true, then the whole is contained in each part, and indeed in each verse. This encourages the use of popular proof texts, which are cited very much as aphorisms and proverbs were used in traditional African and Asian societies. . . . At its worst--whether in Africa or North America--this literalist approach can lead to a selective reading of the scripture, a stress on passages that confirm familiar ideas or prejudices, and a neglect of context. Texts thus become little more than bumper sticker slogans (35).

Not only may they practice proof-texting, but their reverence for the Bible also may lead to superstitious and magical beliefs. The Bible itself is often seen as the center of spiritual power which can combat sickness and evil. It can even be used as a tool for divination!

Additionally, the author notes "The mystical awe inspired by the Bible text sometimes encourages suspicions about the existence of other lost or secret portions of scripture" (37). Differences between the books found in the Catholic and Protestant Bibles suggest that some Christians have wanted to suppress biblical texts or hide certain spiritual truths.

In any case, Christian Scripture holds a fundamental role of authority in Southern churches. They reject Northern liberal attempts to minimize what the Bible teaches.

My Thoughts

I found this chapter very informative. Reading about the different ways in which the Word of God has impacted the Global South causes me to praise God! From recognizing the importance of the public reading and exposition of Scripture to the singing of God-glorifying music, these churches understand the foundational place of the Bible in our faith.

However, the entire section "My Bible and I" disturbed me. Misusing Scripture through proof-texting often leads to error. Believing that the Bible is an object with inherent power misplaces a believer's trust in God to a physical object. A fascination with secret spiritual truths
found outside of Scripture undermines the sufficiency of God's revelation.

Jenkins also troubled me with a statement at the end of the chapter:
The African view effectively follows more contemporary theories of reading and interpretation, stressing the role of the communities that receive and use the texts in question. From this perspective, it makes little difference to argue that a given text is clearly not from the hand of its supposed author, if it is received as authoritative by the churches that read it. . . . The nature of the reading community is critical. In this sense, literalism has much in common with postmodern theories of reading (41).

Rejecting liberal views of biblical inspiration must not lead to a postmodern approach in understanding Scripture. Churches do not give meaning to a biblical text--they must seek to know the meaning given by the author and revealed by God.

As this chapter shows, we have reason both to celebrate and to be concerned. A high view of Scripture is good, but the Bible must be interpreted properly and trusted as the sufficient and complete revelation from God. How can we help our spiritual brothers and sisters in Africa to not only believe in the Bible but to know it and to use it in refuting error?

Your Turn

What do you think? Your thoughts do not have to be profound or anything. Please feel free to contribute to the discussion!