April 19, 2004


The rise of new Christianity: This will come to be seen as the century in which religion replaced ideology (Angela Shanahan, 4/12/04, The Age)

Those who say Christianity is dead or dying might, on the face of it, have a point. There is widespread disillusionment with the established church, and secularism encourages a view of religion that would exculpate its influence from the public domain.

To make matters worse there is a shrinking demographic in Christianity's traditional European strongholds. And a new liberalism has taken hold in Europe and North America that wants to diminish the authority of the hierarchy and erode traditional doctrine on issues such as life, family, and sexuality.

But while this is the case in the old Christian world, think about this. In the Philippines the annual rate of baptisms is higher than the totals for Italy, France, Spain and Poland combined. Of the 18 million Catholic baptisms recorded in 1998, 8 million took place in Central and South America, 3 million in Africa and almost 3 million in Asia.

The coming dominance of new Christianity is the theme of a ground-breaking book by American historian of religion Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

Jenkins argues that "the 21st century will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as the century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs".

His argument is not theological. He analyses sociological trends. Within 25 years the population of Christians will be 2.6 billion, making it the world's largest religion, and most of these will be in the developing world. The growing numbers of Christians in Africa, projected at 228 million by 2025, has probably the deepest political significance because it is there that the dividing lines are drawn between Islam and Christianity - both of which seem to be polarising towards fundamentalism. [...]

When the film The Passion of the Christ was released at the start of Lent this year there was a general perception that a religious film produced by an eccentric and seemingly reactionary Catholic like Mel Gibson was in some ways an exotic curiosity. Many critics, particularly reform-minded Catholics, regarded it as a throwback to a different, pre-Vatican II version of religion.

But contrary to expectations, the film has been hugely popular among the young. This is partly because it vividly dramatises the Passion. But the Jesus of this film is not the fashionable Jesus of my youth, the counter-culturalist, as portrayed in Pasolini's famous film The Gospel According to Matthew. No, it is the suffering Jesus to whose suffering we join our own.

Whatever one's opinion of the artistic merit of the film, it's greatest achievement at Easter 2004 is to bring within the orbit of popular culture an annunciation of the central doctrine of orthodox Christianity: Jesus is the divine redeemer whose suffering and death was the point of his life and the Gospels.

It does that in no uncertain terms - and the young of today want certainty.

Indeed, it's not Christianity that's dying out but secular ideological Europe. Considering how many the ideologues killed, good riddance.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2004 7:10 AM

Well, OJ, if Jenkins is right it sounds like all of the senseless slaughter from now on will have a religious motivation. Tradition prevails, I guess.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 19, 2004 4:30 PM

If it's religious it isn't senseless.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 4:35 PM

As good a reason to extinguish religion as any I could ever come up with.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 20, 2004 7:19 PM