Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity

Jenkins is referring to the "lost history" of Christianity in Africa and Asia vs. Europe and America. The cover photo is a German artist's map of the 16th century's (primary) known world with three flower-petal-shaped land masses depicting Europe, Asia, and Africa-- AND with Jerusalem at the center of the world.

Jenkins notes that Christianity's history has featured both growth and decline. In contrast, the common wisdom is that Christianity was mostly European after the 5th century-- and has grown quite a bit since the 14th century, largely in Europe and America. The last part of this is correct, but not for the reasons or timing usually imagined: "Christianity became predominantly European not because this continent had any obvious affinity for that faith, but by default: Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed." (3)

As a result, Jenkins argues that "We can't understand Christian history without Asia-- or, indeed, Asian history without Christianity." He chronicles some of the many amazing successes of this Christianity-- in terms of evangelism, translating the Scriptures into native tongues, Biblical scholarship, and weighty spiritual experience and disciplines.

Perhaps this success shouldn't surprise us, since Jerusalem was closer to the "seemingly exotic territories of Central Asia than it is to France...If early Christians could reach Ireland, there was no logical reason why they should not find their way to Sri Lanka." (53)

Jenkins provides numbers as well. As late as the 11th century, Asia had about 1/3 (17-20 million) and Africa 1/10th (5 million) of all Christians (4). And at that point in history, the Asia/Africa wings of the Church were stronger and better established. He argues that they were still "the leaders" even at that late date.

Even in 1900, Christians were still 11% of the population in the Middle East-- quite a bit more than other notable, religious minorities today (American Jews' 2%; European Muslims' 4.5%). Christians comprised 15-20% of the population of Asia Minor-- and half of Constantinople's population in 1911 (141, 152-154).

That said, by the 20th century, in relative terms, non-European/American Christians had shrunk as a proportion of all Christians, given relatively low population in the Middle East vs. elsewhere. In the 20th century, the Christian population in the Middle East increased from 4.4 to 9 million, but given big population growth that century, was reduced from 10% to 3% of the overall population (168).

The Church became predominately European in the Middle Ages, starting in the 14th century. Part of this was its rise in Europe; part of this was its decline elsewhere. For example, Asian Christians fell from 21 million to 3.4 million between 1200 and 1500 (24). Overall, Asian Christian communities went from majority/dominant (or at least prominent), to minority status, and then eventually, many were eliminated. Why the decline? A combination of "positive" factors, mild negatives, and brutal negatives.

As Christianity declined, Jenkins argues that Christians and Muslims mostly got along. Christians certainly endured modest discrimination and persecution-- but not enough to cause big trouble and arguably, helpful for strengthening faith and building community. But at times, the pressures and violence increased dramatically, leading to conversion, migration or death. An interesting aspect of this was assumed foreign policy intrigues-- as Christians in Asia were assumed to be in cahoots or at least sympathetic to attacking Christians from Europe (157).

There were also a number of "positive" attractions to Islam. Jenkins points to a number of subtle cultural/political influences: Muslim buildings were more likely to be rebuilt after wars and plagues; Christian language was perceived as as old/archaic; they were surrounded by a Muslim landscape and architecture; the coins depicted Muslim leaders and themes; and the dominant Muslim culture "looked successful".

Surprisingly, another allurement was that Christianity and Islam looked much more similar early-on (31a). This resulted from and resulted in various forms of syncretism. In Islam's early days, there were considerable similarities in belief and practice; perceived overlap in the Scriptures (the Quran seems to have been inspired in part by the OT); and even, shared shrines and saints! Islam was often seen as a heresy of Christianity rather than its own religion (184-187, 194-195, 201-202, 202-205).

The Christians were also disunified-- as European Christians sought to lord it over their Eastern brethren. In fact, they often preferred Muslim to Catholic governance: "Better the Sultan's turban than the Cardinal's hat!" (150)!

Jenkins describes the decline as a "ratchet effect"-- similar to "punctuated equilibrium" in Evolution (211). Instead of gradual decline, there would be a steady-state with occasional, steep drops. Jenkins notes that the Christian populations became more vulnerable-- in terms of quantity and "quality"-- as they were increasingly fragmented. He also depicts some of the declines country-by-country-- e.g., Iraq dropping from 5-6% in 1970 to 1% now (169). Jenkins also gives considerable space to the Armenian Genocide (161-163)-- a little-known but staggering pre-cursor for what would follow-- for Christianity in particular and the world in general-- throughout the 20th century.

Jenkins notes that two factors improved the prospects for survival-- both of which explain the amazing story of the flourishing Copts in Egypt: geographical protection (236-240) and getting into the roots of the culture (35, 230-233).

Interestingly, Christianity is again moving toward the global South today-- with a meteoric rise in South America, China, and Africa in particular. Why is all of this important? For one thing, both the past and the future impact one's eschatology (the trajectory of human history and the nature/timing of God's interventions within history). The dominant evangelical eschatology is pre-millennial-- where things get worse and worse, and then Christ comes to wrap things up. But an understanding of the decline and growth of Christianity in the past-- and its worldwide growth now-- point to the possibilities (probabilities?) of a-millennialism (history goes back and forth between good and evil) and post-millennialism (where God's Kingdom expands more or less over world history).

The book is an easy/pleasant read. If you want to know more about Christian history, check it out!


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