Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

One of the most famous tales of World War I began when a fantasy fiction writer wrote a story in 1914 about British soldiers crying for help while facing overwhelming German forces near Mons, in France.

Their prayers summoned heavenly hosts of archers attacking the "heathen horde."

Soon, veterans started claiming that they saw these "angels" with their own eyes. Images of the Angel of Mons began appearing -- as fact -- in posters, paintings and popular songs.

It's hard to imagine a world in which nations led by rational, scientific elites could embrace these claims, said historian Philip Jenkins, in recent lectures at King University in Bristol, Tenn. That world is impossible to imagine because it was swept away a century ago by waves of change that few saw coming.

"What happened in the victory? 'Oh, angels appeared. The dead arose to fight for us.' When the Germans launched their great offensive in 1918, of course, what else could it be called? It's Operation Michael, after the leading archangel -- who by this point has become something like a German war god," said Jenkins, a distinguished professor at Baylor University and author of 27 books.

"If you look at the propaganda of the time, the assumption is that Christ is absolutely with US -- whoever WE are, the Germans, the Americans, whatever."

Before World War I, most global leaders followed a radically different set of assumptions, with ironclad ties between their governments and major religious institutions, he said. Many soldiers believed that St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, even Joan of Arc, would fight by their side. As the war began, Germany experienced fervor many called a "New Pentecost," with Martin Luther as a messianic figure.

While it's common to believe that religion evolves slowly over time, in a linear manner, the evidence suggests that history lurches through periods of "extreme, rapid, revolutionary change, when everything is shaken and thrown up into the air," said Jenkins. Ever 50 years or so, new patterns and cultural norms seem to appear that never could have been predicted.

T.D. Jakes and the Trinity

For more than a decade, Pentecostal Bishop T.D. Jakes has lived in the shadow of a Time magazine cover that asked, "Is this man the next Billy Graham?" That was a loaded question, because of tensions behind the scenes between the multi-media Dallas superstar and many mainstream Christian leaders.

Now, this legendary preacher -- often listed as one of America's most powerful evangelicals -- has taken a big step toward convincing his critics that he is, in fact, an evangelical. Jakes has, after years of rumors about private assurances, publicly affirmed that he believes in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The Rev. Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle asked the question directly, during the recent Elephant Room conference at the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. This annual event brings together Christian leaders from a variety of backgrounds to discuss tough subjects. Baptist Press has circulated the interview transcript nationwide.

"So you believe," said Driscoll, that "there's one God, three Persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit? You believe Jesus was fully God, fully Man?"

Jakes didn't flinch: "Absolutely."

That one word represents a significant change for Jakes, the leader of The Potter's House, a 30,000-member megachurch that serves as the base for his thriving work in books, Gospel music, social-justice causes and a host of other ministries. While the church is nondenominational, the preacher has long been associated with an unorthodox stream of faith known as "Oneness" Pentecostalism.

The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches that there is one God, yet this God has been revealed in history as three distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a core doctrine that unites Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians worldwide -- including most who embrace Pentecostal and "charismatic" Christianity, the world's fastest growing Christian movement.

The split between Trinitarian and the "Oneness" Pentecostals occurred in stages early in the 20th Century, soon after the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. That famous spiritual earthquake ignited the interracial Pentecostal movement, with its emphasis on spiritual gifts such as prophecy, healing and "speaking in tongues."

"Oneness" leaders denied the reality of the Trinity, saying there is one God -- period. Thus, they continue to baptize in the name of Jesus, alone, rather than using references to "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Critics call this approach "modalism."

In the Elephant Room interview, Jakes noted that his father was Methodist and his mother was Baptist. However, he stressed that he made his own decision to become a Christian in a "Oneness" Pentecostal church. Thus, he said, "I ended up Metha-Bapti-Costal, in a way."

Several scripture passages influenced his change of mind on this issue, he said, especially the account of the baptism of Jesus.

"Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, for example, coming up out of the water [and] the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, the Father speaks from heaven and we see all three of them on one occasion," said Jakes. This and other references "began to make me rethink some of my ideas and some of the things that I was taught.

"I got kind of quiet about it for a while. Because when you are a leader and you are in a position of authority, sometimes you have to back up and ponder for a minute, and really think things through."

"Oneness" churches represent a relatively small piece of the global Pentecostal movement -- about 5 percent of an estimated 640 million believers. Nevertheless, Jakes has clearly been trying to find a way to keep expanding his work into the evangelical, "charismatic" mainstream without cutting his ties to his past, said historian Vinson Synan of Regent University, author of numerous books on Pentecostalism.

"The reality is that he had to address this issue sooner or later because he has all kinds of followers, including lots of Trinitarians," said Synan. "This man sells millions of books, makes movies and is an award-winning Gospel singer. He's a major force in Christian culture in this land. ...

"Well, he might not be able to keep doing all of that if millions of evangelicals think he is some kind of heretic. So he makes this one statement and he's cleared with most evangelicals and charismatics, most of the time. He's on his way to being more acceptable to just about everybody. That's big, in the post-denominational world in which we live."

The Book of Denzel

The first time Denzel Washington read the "Training Day" script, he had an intensely personal reaction to his character -- the charismatic, but fatally corrupt, detective Alonzo Harris. "I try to bend even the worst of my roles, like 'Training Day,' " said Washington, the day after a press screening of "The Book of Eli" in Los Angeles. "The first thing I wrote on my script was 'the wages of sin is death.' "

After that biblical pronouncement, the superstar pleaded for a crucial change in this role, for which he won the Oscar as Best Actor. In the original script, viewers learned about his character's death in a television newscast. Washington insisted that this urban wolf be yanked out of his car and forced to "crawl like a snake" before being riddled with bullets, while people in the neighborhood turned their backs on him.

"I said, 'No, no. ... In order for me to justify him living in the worst way, he has to die in the worst way,' " explained Washington.

For Washington, this "bending" process is part of his ongoing efforts to make sense of his Christian faith in the midst of a career as one of Hollywood's most powerful players in front of, and behind, the camera. The goal isn't to sneak faith into mainstream films, but to pinpoint themes about sin, redemption, justice, dignity and compassion that mesh with what he believes to be true as the son of Pentecostal pastor and an active member of the giant West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

That's what he was doing while playing Malcolm X, emphasizing that his sermons built on racial hatred were evolving into messages rooted in equality. In the violent "Man on Fire," Washington played a bodyguard who decides to sacrifice his own life to save a young girl from kidnappers. This "bending" process is easier in some movies than others.

In the R-rated "Book of Eli" -- directors Albert and Allen Hughes call it a "post-nuclear western" -- the actor plays a warrior who marches through a devastated American landscape while, literally, on a mission from God. He is carrying the last surviving copy of the King James Bible, along with his machete and a few other weapons that he uses with righteous fervor. Call it "Mad Moses" in "The Prayer Warrior."

"Here's a man who, like Saul, or Paul, gets knocked off his horse and has this epiphany, this moment," said Washington.

In a vision, the voice of God tells Eli, "Take this book west," and promises to protect him until he can deliver it into safekeeping. There is one big difference between Eli's story and the biblical account of St. Paul's conversion, the actor admitted, with a laugh. "I don't know if it said anywhere in there, 'And kill everybody on your way.' "

While early drafts of the script contained even more religious material, the film does show Eli reading the Bible and praying every day. In a pivotal scene, he teaches a young woman how to pray, while trying to protect her from a strongman who wants to seize the Bible to use it as "a weapon aimed at the hearts of the weak and the desperate."

Eli's basic message is simple: "Do more for others than you do for yourself." The movie ends with a prayer that includes a famous quotation from St. Paul: "I fought the good fight. I finished the race. I kept the faith."

Washington said these are the kinds of messages that linger after the Bible studies that he strives to fit into each day. He has worked his way through the Bible three times, spurred on by the example of Pauletta, his wife of 26 years.

While reading the Book of Proverbs recently, he began looking around his house, marveling over "all this stuff." This led to a sobering question: "What do you want, Denzel?" He focused on "wisdom," which led to the word "understanding."

"I said, 'Hey, there's something to work on. How about wisdom and understanding? How about that? I started praying, I said, 'God, give me a dose of that,' " said Washington. "I mean, I can't get … anymore successful, you know, but I can get better. I can learn to love more. I can learn to be more understanding. I can gain more wisdom.

"So that's where I'm at."

A rabbi, a preacher and a journalist

Mitch Albom has seen plenty of extremely large men, which isn't surprising after a quarter century as one of America's top sports writers. But he wasn't ready for the giant who met him outside the Pilgrim Church's dilapidated Gothic sanctuary near downtown Detroit. The Rev. Henry Covington was as tall as a basketball player, but weighed 400 pounds or more.

"His body seemed to unroll in layers, a broad slab of a chest cascading into a huge belly that hung like a pillow over the belt of his pants. His arms spread the sleeves of his oversized white T-shirt. His forehead was sweating, and he breathed heavily, as if he had just climbed stairs," wrote Albom, in "Have a Little Faith," a slim book that represents his return to non-fiction 12 years after his inspirational bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Albom's first impression was crystal clear: "If this is a man of God ... I'm the man in the moon."

Covington certainly stood in stark contrast to the other clergyman whose image was fixed in the writer's mind at the time -- the late Albert Lewis, the articulate leader of the Jewish congregation in which Albom grew up, in Cherry Hill, N.J.

The elderly rabbi had shocked Albom by asking him to deliver his eulogy, when that became necessary. This led to eight years of talks between "the Reb" and the skeptical journalist, who had walked away from his Jewish faith after college. This process resembled those philosophical Tuesday dialogues between Albom and a favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the years before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease.

But Albom wasn't looking for another book during his weekday visit to Pilgrim's Church. He had -- while working to boost Detroit charities -- dropped by to learn more about the tiny Pentecostal flock's work with the homeless.

Albom expected to meet people there scarred by life on the street or behind bars, but didn't expect to find one in the pulpit.

In "Have a Little Faith," Albom describes a dramatic sermon in which Covington explored the twisted road that led to redemption: "Amazing grace. ... I coulda been dead. ... Shoulda been dead! … Woulda been dead! … His grace … saved a wretch. And I was a wretch. You know what a wretch is? I was a crackhead, an alcoholic, I was a heroin addict, a liar, a thief. I was all those things. But then came Jesus."

At first, "I wasn't sure that I trusted him," said Albom, in a quick telephone interview. "I thought, 'Isn't there supposed to be some minimal 'goodness' quotient in all of this? How can you have done all of that and now call yourself a man of God?' "

As Albom met members of Covington's church and heard their stories, bonds of trust developed, followed by friendship. Then some of the lessons he learned there began to overlap and interact with what he was learning in his pre-eulogy talks with Rabbi Lewis. There was an emphasis on respecting others, doing good works and helping needy and struggling seekers.

The writer rediscovered his own Jewish roots, but he also had to confront the blunt, powerful claims of Covington's preaching. The rabbi's approach was broad, universal and embraced all faiths. The preacher's faith reached out to others, but remained rooted in the claims of Christianity. He didn't force the needy to convert, but he witnessed to them and prayed for their conversion.

This led Albom back to some of the big questions that emerged from the dialogues with his rabbi: "How can different religions coexist? If one faith believes on thing, and another believes something else, how can they both be correct? And does one religion have the right -- or even the obligation -- to try to convert the other?"

At the end of the book, Albom concludes: "God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it's all one song." At the same time, he chooses to worship in his familiar Jewish congregation, as well as at Pilgrim's Church.

"What can I say? I like Henry's sermons and I like the people and I like the spirit in that church. It is what it is," said Albom.

"I've decided that I'm not wise enough to tell you that one faith is better than another. God will have to sort it all out. That's in God's hands."

Religion futures market 2007

When it comes to statistics about religion, Europe is an urbane continent full of empty cathedrals, while America offers rows of suburban megachurches.

Consider what happens when the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asks a basic "salience question" to determine the level of interest in faith-related matters around the world. Participants are asked to answer "yes" or "no" in response to this statement: "Religion is very important to me."

About six out of 10 in the United States say "yes," noted political scientist Luis E. Lugo, who has directed the research center since 2004.

"There is not a place in Europe, even in Eastern Europe, that comes close to that kind of level of religious commitment," he said, during a religion-news seminar in Washington organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life. Even Canada, he noted, now "looks like Europe on this question."

In Great Britain, 33 percent of those polled said religion was "very important" in their lives, compared with 27 percent in Italy, 21 percent in Germany and 11 percent in France. In Poland, the number was 36 percent, with Russia at 14 percent and the Czech Republic at 11 percent.

This rift between the old world and the new has existed for decades. Lugo said that when he discusses these statistics with Europeans they say, "Ah! See, we knew it. The United States is a very strange place. It's just full of religious zealots."

But then Lugo clicks to another chart as he describes what he calls the "religious futures market." The goal is to map the intersection of faith and demographics, including factors such as fertility rates and religious conversion trends in various nations. What happens when Lugo adds statistics from Latin America, Asia and Africa to his "salience question" chart?

The numbers are stark. In Guatemala, 80 percent of those polled said religion was "very important" in their lives. That number was 77 percent in Brazil and 72 percent in Honduras, but only 39 percent in Argentina.

And Asia? The "yes" total was 95 percent in Indonesia, 92 percent in India, 91 percent in the Philippines, but only 12 percent in Japan. And Africa? Senegal checks in at 97 percent, Nigeria is 92 percent and the numbers only declined to 80 percent in Angola.

Lugo said the typical response by Europeans to these numbers could be summed up in one word -- "Whoa!" Then there is nervous laughter.

So, when it comes to weighing the role of religion in world affairs, Europeans who worry about America have to ask: "Who looks strange now?"

"The world as a whole is even more religious than the United States," Lugo added. "So it is not the United States that needs explaining, in many ways, when it comes to religion, it is Europe that needs to be explained. Why this secular continent ... surrounded by a sea of religiosity?"

This global reality raises all kinds of questions, such as:

* Why are fertility rates linked to the fervency of religious beliefs? "The most secular parts of the world have the lowest fertility rates," he noted, "and the most religious have the highest fertility rates."

* How will Europe respond to high rates of immigration by religious believers, especially Muslims and Christians from Eastern Europe?

* Can the continent of Africa avoid being shaped by conflict between Islam and Christianity -- two growing, conversion-oriented faiths on that continent?

* How will the move of more Catholics into what Lugo called "high-octane Pentecostalism" -- inside the Church of Rome and in Protestantism -- affect Latin America, Central America and, finally, North America?

If researchers focus strictly on Europe and North America, they may conclude that secularism and liberalized forms of faith are on the rise. But if they look at the global numbers, said Lugo, they will see a completely different picture of the future.

"You don't have to be a genius to conclude that it is going to be more religious and less secular," he said. "There is not a European country, for instance, that is anywhere close to a replacement birth rate. Not even close. All of their populations are declining. ... So on that basis alone, you can predict that the whole religion question is going to become even more important, in terms of global affairs."

Pentecostal power 2006

Church historian Vinson Synan has made 20 trips to Latin America while studying the explosive growth of Pentecostal Christianity and he believes that it's time to state the obvious.

"We've reached the point where you're not going to be able to get along very well with many believers in the Third World unless you embrace the gifts of the Holy Spirit," said Synan, who teaches at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

"You just can't have a closed mind when it comes to healing and prophecy and speaking in tongues if you want to talk to people in places like Latin America, Africa and Asia. We?re talking about the whole church there -- almost all of the Protestants and many of the Catholics."

Synan has been saying this for decades in books like "The Old-Time Power" and "The Century of the Holy Spirit," and he isn't alone. Now, researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ( in Washington, D.C., have released a wave of data from 10 nations documenting that the diverse 100-year-old movement called Pentecostalism has touched the lives of one in four Christians around the world.

The Pew team defined "Pentecostals" as members of older bodies such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God in Christ and the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. Then there are "charismatics" who are Catholics, Anglicans and mainline Protestants who embrace healing, prophecy and other spiritual gifts, yet remain in their own churches.

Together, these groups form what many now call the "renewalists." According to this study, these believers -- to cite four eyebrow-raising examples -- make up 60 percent of the population in Guatemala, 56 percent in Kenya, 49 percent in Brazil and 44 percent in the Philippines.

"Renewalists, as a group ? tended to have a very high view of the authority of scripture. They tended to be very regular in worship attendance. They tended to uniformly believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation," said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Center in religion and American politics.

"They tended to be quite conservative or traditional on moral beliefs such as sexual behavior, the consumption of alcohol, divorce and so forth. ... But even in those countries where majorities of the population hold very traditional beliefs, renewalists tend to hold those beliefs more intensely and more extensively."

Another interesting part of this study, said Synan, indicated that "glossolalia," or "speaking in tongues," may no longer be the spiritual gift that defines charismatics and even many Pentecostals. Within the Assemblies of God, for example, there has long been a gap between an "old guard" that believes this experience of ecstatic speech is always the initial sign that someone has been "baptized in the Holy Spirit" and a "third wave" of younger believers who see it as a gift that some experience and some do not.

What truly unites "renewalists" is their belief that miracles and other signs of God's power, especially acts of healing, are real and can be seen in modern life. There is no question that this emphasis on the supernatural causes tension in some churches touched by Pentecostalism, especially tensions between Protestant and Catholic leaders in America and Europe and their Third World counterparts.

Meanwhile, there are conservative Protestants -- especially Calvinists and Baptists -- who reject Pentecostalism and its emphasis on prophecy and "glossolalia." Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, have decided to ban all foreign missionary candidates who confess that they practice a "private prayer language," another phrase often used to describe "speaking in unknown tongues."

Nevertheless, said Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo, "it is getting harder and harder to find non-charismatic Protestants in Latin America, Africa and many other parts of the world." Meanwhile, top Catholic leaders appear to have accepted the need for theological dialogue with the charismatics in their global flock.

At least, said Lugo, it's clear that some clerics in Rome can do the math.

"The Vatican knows that it will have to deal with this new reality and the trend there is definitely toward accommodation," he said. "The U.S. Catholic bishops have not been as open. But the growth of Catholicism in this country is among charismatic Catholics, especially among Hispanics and people moving here from Africa and overseas. There is simply no way to ignore that."