A cynical view of the next pope

Hope springs eternal — and so there is speculation, as there was after John Paul II died, that finally we might have a more liberal pope and/or a pope who represents the vast Third World population that is the real foundation of Roman Catholicism today. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but I think such predictions are unlikely to bear out.

As for a liberal pope, that’s basically impossible, given that the last forty years have been one long effort to squelch the much-lauded “spirit of Vatican II” while maintaining plausible deniability. Essentially all the cardinals who will be electing the next pope have been appointed by the two popes who have spearheaded that effort, and I don’t expect they’ll suddenly have a change of heart.

On the topic of a Third World pope, that strikes me as more plausible (i.e., not absolutely impossible), but still a long-shot. Is a group composed of the same brilliant strategic thinkers who elevated Benedict, along with new recruits directly appointed by Benedict, really going to take a major risk?

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Essay on global Christianity and deconstruction

Last summer, I wrote an essay on global Christianity and deconstruction that resulted in one of the most brutal reader reports I’ve ever received (along with one merely negative one and one that was mostly negative but admitted I may have the kernel of a potentially good idea). I decided to give up on revising it to submit elsewhere, but what is a blog for other than posting ideas that aren’t quite ready for primetime? Enjoy my failure!

Final lecture: Global Christianity

[Since Global Christianity (syllabus) is my more "experimental" course this quarter, similar to the devil course last spring, I thought it might be appropriate to post my capstone lecture notes here, as I did with the devil course.]

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Pentecostalism and Persecution

In my research for the Global Christianity course, one pattern that started to emerge is that Pentecostalism seems to require an environment similar to the free-wheeling religious freedom of the United States to really thrive — in countries where they are kept from starting new churches basically at will (examples include Mexico or Cameroon), they have difficulty spreading, and they certainly don’t experience the “explosive growth” that scholars of Global Christianity are so excited over.

So here’s a thought: Pentecostalism arose in the US, which was a remarkably hospitable region for new religious movements, particularly by the 20th Century. It’s arguably one of the only major Christian movements to arise without significant conflict or persecution—could this have something to do with the optimistic outlook, the lack of emphasis on suffering or injustice, the indulgence in things like prosperity gospel, the failure to gain ground when they face anything but a totally open field for expansion?

How different would Pentecostalism be now if it had initially faced persecution on the scale of that experienced by Liberation Theology, for example? Would it still be enjoying “explosive growth”?

A misgiving about “Global Christianity” literature

As I read more and more about “Global Christianity,” I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with the focus on numbers and growth rates. My objection isn’t that religion shouldn’t be quantified, etc., but rather with the ways that the inevitable breathless recitations of statistics seem to fit all too well with stereotypes about the seething horde of humanity in the Third World, with its unstoppable frenzy of breeding and spreading — such that “they” are in danger of taking over Western countries or bringing the earth itself to its knees through their demands for resources, etc.

To a certain extent, this discomfort is unfair, since birth rates really are higher in the Third World than in developed nations. Yet perhaps it is justified insofar as so many of these studies extrapolate from current demographic trends in making predictions about the future of Christianity — as though there were something inherent to the soil of the Third World such that Christianity, once planted there, can do nothing but grow.

Is it not equally possible that a movement, such as “prosperity gospel”-oriented Pentecostalism, that is enjoying incredibly rapid growth will prove to be a fad and experience just as rapid a decline? Latin American Liberation Theology may never have seen the growth levels of Pentecostalism, but it did have its heyday and subsequent slow decline (albeit never the absolute disappearance that so many Western commentators seem to envision). Similarly, there are many countries in Africa where the African Independent Churches are being left by the wayside, again after previously having grown.

This is the kind of thing you expect when you’re dealing with actual groups of human beings with particular needs and hopes that may or may not be fulfilled by a given religious movement — but for Global Christianity scholars, no such reversal seems to be possible, even though the massive historical fact of the decline of Christianity in Europe is staring them in the face. I don’t know how one would make predictions that would take that possibility into account, but something more is probably needed than extrapolating from current trends. Just as in the West, Christianity in the Third World is an actual lived experience that interacts with the surrounding conditions and the vagaries of individual lives, rather than, for example, a big gob of numbers.

I wish I could quit you

For those hungry for more Milbankian outrage, X-Cathedra has a very thorough post detailing some of Milbank’s previous arguments in favor of Western imperialism, along with a few scholarly responses thereto. A highlight:

He also includes an odd and manifestly reductive genealogy of the fundamental difference that makes “the West” and “the East” culturally incommensurable (all in three pages!). This of course translates into two different views of religio-political power and thus two different kinds of empire: because the East has an essentially arbitrary understanding of divine and regal power, it has no resources within itself to regulate or redeem its imperial strain; but for the West, justice and the Good “are themselves the vehicles of Western imperialism.” And while the latter may occasionally don the mask of domination, at the very least the Western type can (theoretically) produce an internal cultural critique (295). Hence, the antidote to the Western abuse of power can only come from within Western culture itself. Further, because the idea of an “essential Christianity” free from all cultural attachments is a myth, a non-Western cultural expression of Christianity “is just nonsensical” (292).

Sounds like Milbank needs to take my Global Christianity course this fall!

John Milbank seems to me to be wrong

John Milbank’s recent article on Christianity, Enlightenment, and Islam seems to me to have an overly optimistic view of the West, combined with an overly pessimistic view of Islam. In fact, he seems to believe that the basic solution to most problems in the Islamic world is either for Islam to become more like Christianity or for Muslims to just outright convert (albeit by their own “Islamic path to Christ”). Particularly troubling are the concluding paragraphs:

The proper response to our present, seemingly incommensurable tensions is not to gloss over or seek to rehabilitate the past in such a dishonest way, but to analyse why exactly Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times.

This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires (as a consequence of the European wars) and the subsequent failure of Third World national development projects, with the connivance of neo-colonial, purely economic exploitation of poorer countries.

Political Islam offers itself as a new international, but non-colonial, vehicle for Third World identity. Unfortunately, it [i.e., Islam -- as opposed to, say, the present article] also perpetuates over-simplistic accounts of the imperial past and fosters a spirit of resentful rather than self-sustaining and creative response to the ravages of Western capitalism.

Emphasis mine.

I would humbly suggest the following counterpoints: Read the rest of this entry »

A suicide-inducing review

While browsing through Amazon looking for books relevant to my Global Christianity course, I came across Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, whose page includes one of the most horrifyingly negative reviews I’ve ever seen:

Where is the cradle of Christianity—Europe or Africa? After teaching historical and systematic theology, Oden is surprisingly just discovering what other scholars have argued for some time: that the earliest contours of Christianity can be easily traced to Africa. After all, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Plotinus and Augustine—to name only a few early Christian thinkers—were Africans. In this tiresome and repetitious book, Oden belabors the already well-established notion that Christianity’s roots can be found in Africa. He does draw helpfully on his work on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series to demonstrate that the intellectual contours of Christianity—academics, exegesis, dogmatics, ecumenics, monasticism, philosophy, and dialectics—developed in Africa. However, Peter Brown (Augustine of Hippo) and other writers have clearly recognized this contribution, and Oden’s naïve and hyperbolic book is more embarrassing than enlightening. Oden’s study is most suited to those who are entirely new to the debate and who will benefit from resources such as a time line of early African Christianity and a reading list for further investigation of the subject.

Note the reversal of the traditional “a couple token negative points in a basically positive review” — and how extremely faint the praise is even in that context (a timeline and a list of other books!). Brown’s Augustine of Hippo is a particularly artful choice of an example of a previous work that makes the same point, since it’s one of the most widely read scholarly works in theological studies — and more broadly, nearly every word is carefully calculated to belittle.

Also note that this is not some crank Amazon reviewer, but Publisher’s Weekly.

I’m usually inclined to be skeptical of over-the-top positive reviews, but this is definitely a time when I feel like Oden’s book can’t possibly be that bad and this reviewer must have it out for him for some reason.

UPDATE: I believe this clip my have served as something of a template for the reviewer:

Global Christianity Draft Syllabus

I have posted a draft syllabus on Scribd for the Global Christianity course I will be offering next fall. Developing this course is going to be a major project for the summer, and I’m open to changing essentially everything at this point. If you have any suggestions for readings I could swap out for something else or if you have some resources that I should look at for my own background, I would really appreciate it. (I will have access to the University of Chicago library all summer, so I should be able to find virtually any source.)

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