February 4, 2008

The New Faces of Christianity 4: Poor and Rich

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 4: "Poor and Rich."


As with the last chapter, Jenkins draws out how Christians in the Global South understand and apply Scripture. While many Americans and others in the West find the biblical world as different and foreign, Southern Christians feel at home in its pages. Social problems like famine and plague, poverty and exile, clientelism and corruption are usually very familiar to those in the South. The result is a connectedness between Southern Christians and the stories they read in the Bible.

Therefore, the author analyzes some of the most common links that are found between today's global believers and Scripture. These include being poor, living in agricultural societies, having debt and seeking debt forgiveness, facing natural disasters, suffering through hunger and famine, struggling with plagues and diseases, having tribal rivalries, and living in exile or being displaced. Those in the West may also deal with some of these challenges, but Christians in the South are surrounded by these realities constantly. It gives them an immediate connection to the biblical world.

Another feature of Southern Christianity is often its status as a minority faith. They are usually living among Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims and tend to make up a very small if not marginal minority. Thus, they think differently about their faith than those in the West whose societies have been rooted in Christianity for centuries. In the South, there are normally two opposite responses to how believers should coexist with other faiths: either they separate or they cooperate. Either way, these believers cannot avoid wrestling through how they should live among and treat those belonging to other religions.

With Christians in the minority and experiencing so many challenges, they are often looking for a gospel that deals with this life and is not just focused on the hereafter. As a result, we are seeing globally the rise of the prosperity gospel. This belief teaches that Christians have the right and responsibility to seek prosperity in this world, obtaining the health and wealth they desperately need in their lives. Often using the Bible to support their gospel, these preachers find promises of prosperity given throughout Scripture and give hope to those with nowhere else to turn.

My Thoughts

On the positive side, I came away from this chapter recognizing that we have a lot to learn from our Global South brothers and sisters in Christ regarding the Bible. I enjoyed reading the insights they often bring out from the Word of God. The parables connect with them in a way that I have not experienced. While I all too often become focused on my involvement in this world, they recognize the transience of our lives and our dependence upon God. I love seeing God bringing together His people from around the world, all bringing their unique contributions together to glorify our Savior!

At the same time, I recognized a negative side in what I was reading. Two issues really stuck out, the first of which involved the relationship between Christianity and other faiths. Jenkins wrote:
When modern Christian thinkers consider these [other] faiths, they find it difficult to believe that God was not in Asia before the missionaries brought the gospel. In various ways, it seems, perhaps the Spirit was working in other religions. . . . Practical issues of survival apart, it is tempting for Christians to see their own religion as one voice among many, to stress commonalities with the mainstream Asian religions. . . . Conversion need not mean abandoning one's old faith as false (85, 87).

It appears as if these Christians do not recognize the uniqueness of our faith or the exclusivity of our gospel. We need not deny that there is any truth in other religions to realize that they are indeed false and cannot reconcile us with our Creator.

Additionally, the growth of the prosperity gospel is troubling. While the author tries to downplay the problems of this false gospel, it is a soul-damning counterfeit. God does promise to take care of us, but the prosperity we should ultimately seek is spiritual (Matthew 6:25-33).

With this in mind, how can we balance the positive and the negative here? How can we both learn from our fellow believers in the Global South while at the same time help them grow in their understanding of the true gospel and its uniqueness?

Your Turn

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