13 August 2007

Jenkins on the christian global south

Five years ago Philip Jenkins of Penn State University published The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, one of the more significant books of that year. In May of this year the Pew Forum convened its twice-yearly Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life in Key West, Florida, with Professor Jenkins as principal speaker. Michael Cromartie of the Ethics & Public Policy Center was the moderator of the discussion, a transcript of which can be read here: Global Schism: Is the Anglican Communion Rift the First Stage in a Wider Christian Split? Among other things Jenkins argues that the world of the Bible is more immediately comprehensible to African Christians than to westerners living in post-industrial societies.

I was once talking to some West Africans about the bits of the Bible that made sense to them in ways that could not make sense to Westerners. They said, "We live in agricultural societies, so things like the Parable of the Sower made great sense." Just talking about it, they started getting teary eyed. Then they mentioned Psalm 126. Psalm 126 is a psalm that is widely quoted, and it goes like this: "The man who goes forth into the fields in tears weeping to sow the seed will bring the sheaves again in joy." You understand perfectly well why a farmer would bring the sheaves again in joy; he's celebrating harvest time.

But why do you weep while you're sowing? "It's obvious," they said to me. "Whoever wrote this psalm was writing at a time of famine, like we had a couple of years ago. You've got the corn that's left, and you can do one of two things with it. You can feed your family with it, but if you do that, you're not a farmer anymore [because you have no seeds left] and you have to migrate to the city and become a beggar, and what's going to happen to your children and so on. Or you can take the corn literally out of the hands of your hungry children and use it as seed corn and sow it. That's why a farmer weeps while sowing the corn. It's obvious."

As I said, it wasn't obvious to me, but there are any number of examples like that where the Bible describes a world that makes immediate, intuitive, documentary sense in a way it can't for us.

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