When Multiculturalism is Conservative and Christian

My fellow professors talk the talk of multiculturalism but don’t walk the walk when it leads them in directions they don’t want to go — toward what the left calls sexism, homophobia and Christian fundamentalism.

For example, the religious left often claims that U.S. and European Christians twisted Christ into a god made in their own image. The Huffington Post Web site ran a claim by liberal minister Jim Rigby that "many Christians seek a white male king" and (Europeans) "could not see Christ in non-male, non-European, and non-Christian people because they were limited by their theology."

Rigby concluded with a call to teach our children to abandon "the dictator Christ of this culture." But is the idea of God with authority the product of our culture? Last summer I worshipped at a house church in Beijing, and the previous summer relished a service in a Zambian megahut. Crucially, those Asians and Africans see Jesus as Lord, not just a pal. Secondarily, they have conservative positions on homosexuality, gender and other issues that are dividing the American church.

Penn State professor Philip Jenkins has documented the growth of non-European Christianity, most notably in "The Next Christendom" and "The New Faces of Christianity." He argues, using demographic data and trends, that by the year 2050 only one Christian in five will be white and non-Latino, and that Asia, Africa and Latin America will be centers of Christianity, not Europe or North America.

This forecasting method has its limitations: Who knows what God will do? Furthermore, although the trends are bad, Europe may not yet be finished, and Christianity in the United States — despite many flaws — is still vibrant. Still, it would not be surprising in 2050 if China were the leading Christian country in the world. As an extension of current growth patterns, Jenkins’ prophecies are important, and his specific detail useful.

For example, Jenkins points out that the surging churches of the south are decidedly non-liberal in their theology: He quotes one African church leader saying, "We read the Bible as a book that comes from God and we take every word in the Bible seriously. Some people will say that we are therefore fundamentalists. We do not know whether this word applies to us or not but we are not interested in any interpretation of the Bible that softens or waters down the message."

Jenkins challenges U.S. professors and pastors who talk about the non-Western world to become truly multicultural: Understanding Christianity "in its non-Western context is a prime necessity for anyone seeking to understand the emerging world. American universities prize the goal of diversity in their teaching, introducing students to the thought-ways of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often by using texts from non-Western cultures. However strange this may sound in terms of conventional stereotypes, teaching about Christianity would be a wonderful way to teach diversity."

The difference between the dying churches of Europe and the livewires to the south is not just the headline-grabber concerning homosexuality. In Europe many see the Bible as ancient irrelevance, but I saw in Africa and China excitement as hungry readers devoured its message. Jenkins shows why: "Read Ruth, for instance, and imagine what it has to say in a hungry society threatened by war and social disruption. Imagine a society terrorized by a dictatorial regime dedicated to suppressing the church, and read Revelation: understand the core message that whatever evils the world may produce, God will triumph."

That core message is vital in the West as well. We need to rediscover the sense of immediacy evident when members of an African congregation heard the reading of Paul’s regards to the Corinthians: "My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus." They answered in unison: "Thank you, Paul."