African Christianity is big news lately in the West. Philip Jenkins's recent book The Next Christendom is quoted everywhere—he argues, with great plausibility, that in 50 or 100 years the heart of global Christianity will be Africa, not Europe or North America. In a previous newsletter, we noted that the African wing of Anglicanism has been offering a persistent and influential conservative critique of that communion's liberal drift.
Adding his voice is author Phillip E. Johnson, in an article titled "The African Century?" in the current issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. For those unfamiliar with this magazine, it bills itself as both conservative and ecumenical. That is, its editors and readers come from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox backgrounds. These disparate believers base their conversation on "shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church."
Johnson, a Presbyterian elder and emeritus Professor of Law at Berkeley, is best known in evangelical circles as the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, and most recently, The Right Questions (all InterVarsity Press), books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. His article begins with a quotation from Harriet Beecher Stowe's mid-nineteenth century classic Uncle Tom's Cabin. At that book's end, an escaped slave, George Harris, prophesies the destiny of his African homeland: "The development of Africa is to be essentially a Christian one."
That prophecy, says Johnson, has come to pass.
Johnson argues that this has been true even though the "Christianization" of Africa took place largely under the radar of the secularizing establishment in the West. Western media and academics in the twentieth century preferred to focus on the political and material disasters arising from Western models of African development. They spent most of their time by the end of the century wondering, as Johnson says, "whether the developed nations should formally forgive the uncollectible loans that were made and wasted while economists and diplomats were under the illusion that borrowed money and technology would bring development to Africa."
But all the while, the African people were turning to the Gospel for their answers. As we notice in Christian History's most recent issue, #79, a powerful group of indigenous evangelists succeeded during the first half of the twentieth century where Western missionaries had failed, propelling Christianity in Africa from between 8 and 10 percent of the population (8 to 10 million) in 1900 to nearly 50 percent (360 million) today.
Johnson suggests the future of this trend when he reminds us that recent speculation (in some quarters, even betting) about who will be the next Roman Catholic pope has focused increasingly on an African: Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Arinze is a conservative who stirred up controversy in this country recently when he regaled the crowd gathered for Georgetown University's commencement ceremony with a few uncompromising words on the evils of abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia.
"The last time a pope was chosen," says Johnson, "it was a bold and marvelously appropriate step to choose a man from a Catholic country suffering under Communist oppression." So why not follow up John Paul II's appointment with another appropriate step: the first African pope? "Such a pope could make a fresh start in imposing much-needed discipline on wayward bishops and in calling Catholics and the rest of us back to the basic principles of family morality, which we often seem to have forgotten."
To which we add our amen—and a historical reminder:
The very ability of an African such as Arinze to serve in the hierarchy of his church has a fairly recent origin. To be precise, October 29, 1939, when the scholarly Ugandan priest Joseph Kiwanuka was consecrated by Pope Pius XII at Saint Peter's Basilica—the first African Catholic bishop.
The story of how that bold, appropriate move happened—over the protests of a divided church—is told in our aforementioned issue #79. Itself a prophetic move, Kiwanuka's consecration opened the gates to a vibrant indigenous African Catholic leadership. Thirty-five years later, on Mission Sunday in 1964, Kiwanuka assisted Pope Paul VI at St. Peter's as, for the first time, black African Christians were declared saints. Three years after Kiwanuka's death in 1966, that same pontiff consecrated no fewer than 12 African bishops in Kiwanuka's old cathedral.
Now, in the eyes of many observers both inside and outside the Catholic Church, the time is ripe for the next step. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, a new crop of African bishops will find themselves being consecrated by one of their own countrymen. And a new, "African century" of the church will be well launched.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
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Other Christian History articles on the Pope John Paul II include:
John Paul II | In issuing more significant encyclicals and visiting more nations than any other pope, he's shown that Christianity remains a world force.
The Politicians' Patron | Just in time for the election, Pope John Paul II prepares to declare Thomas More the patron saint of politicians—though More was not quite a model for all seasons.
Other Christianity Today articles on Pope John Paul II include:
In Greece and Syria, Pope John Paul II Tries to Heal Ancient Wounds | But many Orthodox Christians and Muslims are suspicious and hostile to visit. (May 9, 2001)
Will Isidore Be Patron Saint of the Internet? Pope John Paul Will Decide. | Announcement will likely coincide with release of document on Internet ethics. (March 27, 2001)
Pope's Pilgrimage to Ukraine Prompts Warning From Orthodox | Revival of the Greek Catholic Church in Russia prompts new conflict. (July 11, 2001)
Not All Religions Equal, Declares Pope John Paul II | Jesus is 'unique Savior,' Pope reiterates; other religions called 'incomplete.' (Feb. 7, 2000)
Pope Asks Forgiveness for Past "Betrayal of the Gospel" | Church's 'children' made mistakes, but the church is sacred, says John Paul II (March 13, 2000)
Pope tells Palestinians to Seek Hope in the Place Where Jesus was Born | Kiss of ground symbolic as John Paul II calls for Palestinian homeland (March 20, 2000)
Israelis and Palestinians Pay Tribute to Pope's Pilgrimage to Holy Land | Though some at grassroots remain unappeased, leaders of both groups are full of praise (March 27, 2000)
Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
When Denominations Divide | The two-century-old "Unitarian controversy" suggests a grim prognosis for the current crisis in the Episcopal Church
Our Brothers and Sisters, the Episcopalians | The Episcopal Church needs our help. Here's why we should give it.
Six 'Faith-based' Stories and a Moral | Are Christian social ministries worth fighting for?
Breaking Down the Faith/Learning Wall | How the history of Christians in higher education has stacked the deck against Robert Sloan's "new Baylor." (Sept. 19, 2003)
Learning From the Other 9/11 | Words kill. So teachers, watch what you say. (Sept. 11, 2003)
The Lord of the Rings: What Harvest? | A reader's guide to the best of epic fantasy (Sept. 5, 2003)`
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend—and Truth—to modern readers (Aug. 29, 2003)
The Ten Commandments, How Deep Our Debt | The words of the Decalogue run like a river through not only the church but also English and American history. (August 22, 2003)
Muscular Christianity's Prodigal Son, College Sports | In the wake of a basketball scandal at a prominent Christian university, we take time to remember the Christian roots of college athletics. (August 15, 2003)
Palestinian Christians, Strangers in a Familiar Land | They've called the Holy Land home for centuries, but they've never actually governed themselves. (August 8, 2003)
Liberia's Troubled Past—and Present | The nation's history explains why the current conflict succumbs to, yet simultaneously transcends, the stereotype of African tribal wars. (August 1, 2003)
Medical Missions' African Legacy | For generations, missionary doctors have healed body and soul in Africa. (July 25, 2003)
European Christianity's 'Failure to Thrive' | Why Christendom, born with an imperial bang, is now fading away in an irrelevant whimper. (July 18, 2003)
Where Have All the Classics Gone? | These days it's a triumph when a movie is simply inoffensive. But we can do better than that (July 11, 2003)
From Beer to Bibles to VBS | How America got its favorite summer tradition. (July 3, 2003)
The African Lion Roars in the Western Church | Anglican liberals are fretting, conservatives rejoicing, and all are scrambling to their history books: whence this new evangelical force on the world scene? (June 27, 2003)