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Philip Jenkins: Companions of Life

The recommended reorientation involves an “unlearning” process as well. Historically, we need to ditch ideas that Christianity was originally a Western movement and remember its roots in the East. Today’s migration is in reality “a resumption of older norms.” In a sense, as Christianity moves beyond Europe and America, “it is going home.” Geographically, we need to replace the unrealistic assumption of area domination by the North and West. The majority land mass of the world is more to the South—as are some “booming centers” of Christian presence and mission. Politically, we need to realize that though traditionally ideologies have tended to come in packages, many Christians around the world do not necessarily “respect the walls” we’ve erected. Global South evangelicals are often “conservative” on issues such as abortion or homosexuality but more “liberal” regarding social programs. Furthermore, they often feel free to combine beliefs and worship styles from evangelical and catholic, liturgical and charismatic traditions.

Christianity is definitely in transition. Jenkins thinks “the rules will continue to change and evolve” quite simply “because that is the nature of growth.” For him, this is not necessarily a negative notion. Accordingly, he concludes with a telling quote from an ancient Chinese scripture, the Dao De Jing, insisting “hard and stiff” or “hard and strong” are “comrades of death,” while “supple and weak” or “pliant and fragile” are “the comrades of life” (cp. 76, trans. D. C. Lau). Hence Dr Jenkins’ title and theme: “Companions of Life: A Supple Faith.” For him, global Christians must apply this principle or perish.

I have a few brief observations. First, Jenkins’ calls our attention to the changing face of global Christianity, and this is a welcome dose of reality. Second, his resultant insistence on reorienting mission seems like wise counsel. Third, and what I most want to address, his philosophy of flexibility is certainly a winsome approach. And Jenkins’ practices what he preaches. For example, in this article he expresses a willingness to learn from the Muslim doctrine of da′wa, an invitation to faith directed to nominal believers and outsiders, for the Christian reconversion of dechristianized societies. And of course, his paradigmatic reliance on the Dao Te Jing is certainly not old, hidebound Christian ideology—in spite of his doubtless correct contention that it “parallels Christian insights.” By the way, my own translation copy is even stronger than the one Jenkins uses. It refers to “the stiff and unbending” as “the disciple of death” and “the gentle and yielding” as “the disciple of life,” adding that the “hard and strong will fall” and the “soft and weak will overcome” (Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English). Perhaps Jews and Christians will be reminded of “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Ps 37:11; cf. Matt 5:5). Christians especially will remember Christ’s yielding himself to the humiliation of death on the cross as essential to his later and lasting exaltation (Pp. 2:5-11). Accordingly, Christians can confidently concur with Jenkins that flexibility has inherent vitality. But how far can we faithfully go? When does bending become breaking after all? And what all exactly are we talking about being so supple about? I would appreciate some specific boundaries being put in place, or at least a call for guidelines.

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2007

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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