Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). [Author’s Note: older translations mistake the title Kandake for a proper name, rendering this phrase “Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians”.] This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. [Author’s Note: silent reading was extremely uncommon until the late Middle Ages.]
“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” [Author’s Note: Apparently, confirmation classes had not yet been invented either.] And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. —Acts 8:26-39
Now, I understand that it is now considered problematic to use the Hebrew Scriptures as Phillip did in this passage, as proof-texts of the divinity of Jesus, but that is not the problem I’m interested in here. What I do find interesting is another problematic behavior or mind-set that persists to this day—one that may be summed up in Hilaire Belloc’s infamous phrase, ‘Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe.’
One evening in a very good Ethiopian restaurant in West Philadelphia, I overheard the owner talking with a couple at another table. She said, “When white missionaries came to Ethiopia and found we were already Christian, they asked how we had heard about Jesus, and we opened up the Acts of the Apostles and said, ‘Well…’”
I’m reminded of Belloc’s phrase whenever I tell people that South India was evangelized by Thomas the Apostle and see the astonishment on their faces. I was reminded of it when reading Martin Palmer and Eva Wong’s book The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, which describes a thriving Christian monastic life in northwest China in the 6th and 7th centuries. And yes, when I read the Acts of the Apostles describing the chief eunuch of the Kandake beating to European missionaries to Ethiopia by centuries.
Not only were Europe and the faith not synonymous in the past, they don’t appear to be so in the future, either. In his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Phillip Jenkins draws our attention to the worldwide shift of the gospel faith to the Global South. The face of post-modern Christianity is, increasingly, brown and poor, rather than white and rich, and its priorities are very different from ours.
In Latin America, these differences are most evident in Liberation Theology’s challenge to poverty and oppression. In Africa, the differences are often manifested in disturbing ways, such as many African church’s enduring hostility toward LGBTQIA+ people. Asian churches are also discovering the liberating power of the gospel. Western academics’ report of the death of Christianity increasingly appears to have been greatly exaggerated, but the Church of the future is going to look—indeed, already does look—very different from the what the West thinks of as ‘Christendom.’
Christianity is not dying; it’s transforming. The Western world is not the faith, and the faith is not the Western world.