Philip Jenkins of Baylor U is probably our most perceptive commentator on religion. His views are almost always even-handed, even if he’s describing trends he’s not quite comfortable with. One cannot help but be extremely impressed when reading The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.
There he described, in the first edition of 2002, an ineluctable shift of Christianity south of the equator, long before it was popular to say so, long before Bergoglio became Francis.
What’s impressive about his writing is that according to him–even though Jenkins himself appears to be a very mildly liberal Episcopalian, even though he seems to be squirming in his seat as he writes the words–Christianity will become much more “conservative and supernaturalist” than comfortable for First World Christians. What’s more, he predicts a shift of focus away from petty First World bickering to real Third World problems.
A recent article of his,“Farewell, Old Pagan World,” is presently making its rounds through social media. In it Jenkins goes through several examples of how Christianity supplanted paganism in the Western imagination. He points out how several cultural artifacts, which were taken to be pagan by most moderns, have time and again proven to either be saturated by Christian redactions or totally fabricated by Christians. The most amusing example, at least to my mind, is the striking Cerne Abbas pictured above. There is a certain relish to what Jenkins says about it:
“Scholar Ronald Hutton points out that the figure is not even referred to before the late 17th century, unlike other authentic monuments like Stonehenge, which had intrigued travelers through the Middle Ages. By far the most likely conclusion is that this impressive figure, with his giant phallus and club, is meant to depict not Hercules but… Oliver Cromwell. The local landowner in the 1650s was a Royalist Anglican who loathed Cromwell’s Puritan regime. In internal exile on his estate, he whiled away his time ordering the construction of a savage chalk-cut cartoon of the dictator, with the large club indicating the regime’s total lack of legitimacy. Cerne Abbas isn’t a pagan idol, it’s a dirty joke.”
He deconstructs Beowulf much in the same way. The ultimate takeaway is that:
“In modern times, books by authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have inspired hugely successful popular culture treatments, although they are sometimes accused of imposing their Christian interpretations on the older mythologies. In reality, it is very hard indeed to excavate through those medieval Christian layers to find Europe’s pagan roots. Never underestimate just how thoroughly and totally the Christian church penetrated the European mind.”
Much to my chagrin, Jenkins seems to come too close to something like an anti-pagan supersessionism when he ignores how the penetration goes both ways.
The Rick Perry episode I mentioned here is an example of what I’m talking about. The governor thinks the secularists are persecuting Christians when “They can come in very large ways like the war on terror or our freedoms can be taken away in small ways like the removal of a Christmas tree from a classroom.” The mention of the Christmas tree is peculiar because, as any pedantic village atheist will tell you, it’s (GASP!) a (spoiler alert!) pagan symbol.
I believe the Cambridge theologian Catherine Pickstock does a much better job of capturing this double-penetration and some of its anthropological and political implications in the article “Liturgy and Modernity” in Telos (113):
“Catholicism much more tolerant than [classical] liberalism [/capitalism/globalism]. In this schema, each difference is fully tolerated precisely because it is more than tolerated, since each difference is a figural repetition of the other differences. Thus, Catholicism has allowed many local rites and variations, and has sheltered much traditional folk narrative and practice. It has been able to reconstrue pre-Christian myths and rituals as figurative anticipations of Catholicism. This may seem like an imperialist gesture, but this figurative reading enriches the sense of Catholicism. Thus, in the legends of the Holy Grail, Celtic ideas of inspirational cauldrons are read eucharistically. This also discloses new dimensions in eucharistic understanding.”
This should give pause to those who are worried about the leveling and cultural destruction globalism leaves in its wake. Why imprison oneself in hegemony-envy of the Catholics like Gramsci? Why wish for a St. Francis to radicalize the multitudes like Hardt and Negri? Why, when there’s pope Francis and the hybrid God and the hybrid institution he represents?
He’s also from the Global South.