Yesterday, I began a post about likely demographic changes in Christianity, according to an historian and religious studies professor, Philip Jenkins. Pope Benedict, XVI, in speaking about the nature of the Second Vatican Council, brought up the idea of continuity and discontinuity. The faith of the Church is continuous, but the cultures in which it lives are discontinuous, so the faith has to be expressed differently to different cultures, and differently within the same culture as it undergoes various discontinuities, such as revolutions (political, artistic, scientific or philosophical, for example).
Jenkins' article speaks to this concept, without mentioning it. He writes of a conversation he had with Archbishop Bernard Malango, head of the Anglican Church in Central Africa. The Archbishop commented that he has never presided at a funeral where there were less than twelve bodies. Jenkins writes,
When you consider the overwhelming nature of such poverty and the universal presence of such death, you have a better idea of what this means for the growth of Christianity. You can better understand the attraction of John 10:10, a verse that has been described as the life-verse of the African continent: 'I come so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.' In such a context, life does not refer merely to spiritual life; it means material life and material well-being. Otherwise, faith is empty. Healing and the welfare of body and mind go together. Otherwise, religion is false.
He goes on to describe how healing holds a primary place in the faith that is spreading throughout Africa. During a healing service in Uganda, which will likely be one of the most Christian nations by the middle of this century, a woman reported that she had been healed of a spinal ailment. When she said this, others in the congregation started to give testimony of how they had been healed by various ailments. In an attempt to end the service, a deacon listed various illnesses and asked for a show of hands of how many had been healed from them, and dozens of people raised their hands. And this during a healing service in a Catholic church. The miracles occurred during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament!
Trends in Global Christianity, P. Jenkins, in The New Evangelization: Overcoming the Obstacles, Boguslawski and Martin, eds., Paulist Press, 2008, p. 147
On a continent in which Christianity rubs shoulders with Islam and pagan, animist religions, the differences among Christians are not so important. Jenkins suggests,
Our Western labels do not apply to Christians in the Global South. If you ask a Nigerian member of the Anglican Church - an outrageously successful Church that counted 5 million members back in 1978, 18 million members today, and a projected 36 million members by 2025 - whether they are evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic, they will answer each question with an absolute and sincere "yes." ... What we call the Charismatic or Pentecostal style prevails in Churches across the board in these countries, including Catholic and Anglican Churches. ibid, p. 148.
In the poor, global south, where life expectancies are almost half what they are in Europe and the U.S., the message of Jesus has a different accent. For example, in Luke 4 Jesus announces, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." Lk 4:18-19 We in the west often associate liberation with the advocates of liberation theology, and deliverance (from evil spirits) as something associated with Pentecostals - two groups from different ends of the political spectrum. But for people who are desperately poor, deliverance and liberation are the same thing.
Jenkins shares an amusing story,
Not long ago, a white, middle-class, Adventist pastor from the United States was visiting an Adventist congregation in South Africa...The church was surprised by his visit, but welcomed him with open arms. When word of his presence reached the pastor in charge of the congregation, the pastor made an announcement that, he assumed, would be received as an honor: "My friends, I have wonderful news for you. Pastor Smith has come to visit us all the way rom the United States. I will ask him to conduct tonight's exorcism." Picture the consternation that this announcement caused for the visiting pastor! How many seminaries here in the United States - or in the entire Western world for that matter - prepare its graduates to deal with issues concerning healing and spiritual warfare? However, in the Global South, if you do not have a healing ministry that occupies a prominent place in your congregation, people will leave your church and go to others where they will find a healing ministry. ibid p. 149
In our society, we have other medical options, and Jenkins is not suggesting we abandon them. However, I wonder if part of the reason we do not see much in the way of extraordinary healings is because, like in Nazareth, Jesus finds little faith in us?
Furthermore, despite the imminent release of a movie titled, "Angels and Demons," we have trivialized the former and denied the existence of the latter, for the most part - even though the New Testament is filled with references to healing, exorcism, angels and demons! We may demonize our political opponents, but we wouldn't think that they were actually being influenced by a demon. And if we did, we almost certainly wouldn't know how to discern if that were the case.
In this context, the Called & Gifted workshop has been a tremendous boon in my spiritual life. It has helped me recognize how God is still active in this world through his servants, and how the stories of the New Testament, particularly the stories of healings, exorcisms, and mass conversions in the Acts of the Apostles are not hyperbole, myth or wishful thinking, but - dare I say it - normative Christianity! The fact that we might look at the expression of Christianity, including Catholic Christianity, in Africa and find it "foreign," says a lot about us. And the fact that Africans and Latin Americans experience the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their communities may well lead them to look at our expression of faith as bland and sterile.
Jenkins ends his article with a serious challenge.
We need to take seriously the approaches that we encounter among our brothers and sisters from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, especially in terms of healing, spiritual warfare, and a literal definition of evil. We Euro-American Christians have to take stock of what we believe and see where it comes from. What is Christian and what is cultural and intrinsic to our Western culture? If, for example, you ask some of the pastors of these African churches where they derive their "strange and bizarre" ideas, they will simply smile at you and patiently explain that they are found in the Book of Acts, where they are quite commonplace. It is good to recall that Christianity reached Europe through St. Paul, who had a vision in a dream and whose concept of the Church was akin to that of these African pastors. ibid, pp. 151-152.