Now I have to completely re-think African evangelicalism. Thanks Philip Jenkins!

6 Feb

Rarely do I read an article and find myself totally having to re-think the way I usually think about a subject.  But after reading Philip Jenkins’s essay on the nature of Christianity in the global south, particularly Africa, that has happened.

Western evangelicals are usually befuddled and often embarrassed by the kind of evangelicalism that is practiced in Africa and much of the developing world.  Why must it be to prone to fundamentalism in practice and literalism in interpreting scripture?  It turns out, Philip Jenkins gives us a rather good reason in this essay.  His basic thesis is that African Christianity practices a more literal kind of evangelicalism because, well, African cultures can directly relate to cultures and practices in bible times in a way that western evangelicals can’t.  African Christians have to do less work in trying to make the bible, a book from a very different place in a very ancient time, relevant and applicable to the present because, well, so many of the ancient practices and cultural references fit in relatively well in life as it is lived in much of the African and developing world.  Westerners have a hard time relating and applying bible stories featuring tribal societies, water fetching, oxen tending, sojourners and pilgrims, clan elders, subsistence farming, famine and starvation, sorcery and witchcraft, and superstitious animistic religious practices (including sacrifices).  But these things do not sound so strange the ears of African Christians.  So when God speaks to them through the Bible, it is perhaps easier for them to understand the Bible to be both historical and practical, as it speaks of things not unheard of among either ancient Hebrews or present-day African believers.  Marvelous insight.  One that I’m apparently late to the game in appreciating, since it was published in 2006!  Oh well, better late than never.

Give it a read (here’s most of it to the end; read the rest here from First Things:

 Whatever we think of specific moral or political questions at issue between Global North and South, the critical difference concerns attitudes to authority, and any acquaintance with African or Asian Christianity soon indicates the pervasive importance of the Bible and of biblical stories. The Bible has found a congenial home among communities who identify with the social and economic realities it portrays, no less than among the political environments in which Christians find themselves. Cultures that readily identify with biblical worldviews find it easier to read the Bible not just as historical fact but also as relevant instruction for daily conduct.

Attitudes to the Old Testament provide a good example. For many American Christians, it is obvious that the stories of the ancient Hebrew world arise from an utterly different social and economic setting of limited practical relevance to a modern society. In contrast, it is precisely the Old Testament world that speaks in contemporary tones to many African and Asian Christians. “If present day Africans still find it difficult to be at home with the Old Testament, they might need to watch out to see if they have not lost their Africanness in one way or the other,” writes Madipoane Masenya, a feminist liberal theologian from South Africa. Could a comparable observation conceivably be made of contemporary Europeans or North Americans?

Cultural affinities with the biblical world lead African and Asian Christians to see the Old Testament as their story, their book. In Africa particularly, Christians have long been excited by the obvious cultural parallels that exist between their own societies and those of the Hebrew Old Testament. In much of Africa, social events frequently involve some kind of sacrifice or libation, as do celebrations of key events in the ceremonial year. 

In the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation seem especially relevant. For modern Africans, as for the original audience of Revelation, writes Fidon Mwombeki, a Tanzanian Lutheran leader, “[t]he dead are still living in the other world, and they influence the life of those in this world.” He discusses the exalted picture of God and the common belief that the future can be seen through visions, dreams, and revelations. Moreover, he writes: “the dominant symbols of the lamb, the throne, the blood, and the animals are common in African religious symbolism. The sacrificial blood, as well as innocent human blood crying from the ground (Rev. 6:10), corresponds to present-day African beliefs. No one in Africa can expect to get away with shedding innocent blood. At the same time, the lamb as the animal of sacrifice slaughtered for the sins of humanity is a dominant symbol both in Revelation and in African beliefs.”

Evangelical religion with a central notion of being saved in the blood has exercised immense appeal in modern Africa. Perhaps the greatest African hymn is “Tukutendereza Yesu,” the song of the blood of the lamb. When observers complain that revivals and healing crusades make little explicit reference to evangelical theology, that is partly because pastors can reasonably assume their hearers will already know so many of these doctrines. A sacrificial society is uniquely equipped to understand theories of atonement, which can never have more than metaphorical power in a culture such as our own. It is one thing to sing of sacrifice, to hymn the power in the blood; it is quite another to have seen and smelled the event take place. How many American evangelicals have had such an experience?

The more time one spends with southern Christians, reading the Bible through their eyes, the harder it is to see the Bible as simply a historical text. And the more immediately one understands the biblical world, the easier it becomes to accept the authority of the text. In the words of another very liberal theologian, Kenya’s Musimbi Kanyoro, “Those cultures which are far removed from biblical culture risk reading the Bible as fiction.” 

Particularly appealing are the parables, in which Jesus incorporated so many observations of contemporary conditions. Across Africa and Asia, millions of modern readers have been on roads where a traveler is likely to be robbed and left for dead, without much hope of intervention by official agencies. They understand accounts of streets teeming with the sick. They know that a poor woman who loses a tiny sum of money would search frantically for coins that could allow her children to eat that night. In many countries, readers appreciate the picture of the capricious rich man, who offers hospitality on one occasion but on another day demands payment of exorbitant debts and obligations, and who must not on any account be offended. 

On occasion, the social background of the Global South allows readers to see dimensions of the text that have been largely lost in a postindustrial world. Like Europeans in bygone centuries, many modern Africans and Asians read biblical tales of plague and famine as powerfully contemporary. Perhaps only hungry eyes can appreciate just how thoroughly images of food and feasting, eating and starving, pervade both Testaments. Throughout the Bible, being filled with food is for most people an unusual prospect, as was true for most societies before the eighteenth century, including those of western Europe. In Luke’s Magnificat, Mary celebrates a radical vision of a society in which God will fill the hungry while sending the rich away empty. When the prodigal son comes home, driven by famine, he is given a banquet complete with fatted calf. 

Encountering such visions of plenty has an immeasurably greater impact in a society that knows hunger than in a western community where the most prominent food-related story of recent years was an alleged obesity epidemic. The spirit of the biblical world is movingly summarized by the contemporary grace said by rural Chinese Christians: “Today’s food is not easy to come by. God gives it to us. After we eat it, we will not be sick. God protects us so that we can have the next meal. He protects us so everything is prosperous and we have peace. All our family members, from young to old, need the protection from God.”

Nor can most African or Asian readers be complacent about the easy availability of water. The numerous biblical passages about plentiful water mean a great deal in nations that can only dream of such a luxury. Such readers share the amazed expectation of the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus promises her a reliable source of living water. Within a few years, perhaps half the world’s people will live in countries that are lacking sufficient water.

One of the most harrowing stories of the whole Bible occurs in Elisha’s time, when a woman begs the king to enforce the agreement she had made with her neighbor in response to the raging famine. First they would eat the son of one woman, then the son of another, but the other woman was reneging on the deal. Would the king not grant her justice, by ordering the second act of cannibalism? However grotesque the story, millions of modern readers can understand the desperation that lies at its center. They know that, while men can sometimes flee a famine-stricken area, women remain behind with the children. How many American churches have ever heard sermons on this particular text?

Food shortages form the subject of modern Christian hymns and writings. Ghanaian poet Afua Kuma declares:

The famine has become severe.
Let us go and tell Jesus!
He is the one who
When he raises his hands
Gives even our enemies their share
And our brothers bring head pans
To carry the food away.

The radicalism can hardly be appreciated in societies that do not know famine: Not only does God grant food in time of hunger, but he even pours blessings on our enemies.

The prevalence of hunger and natural disaster helps explain the enormous popularity in Christian Africa and Asia of the Book of Ruth, a tale of a society devastated by famine, in which women survive by depending on each other and on trusted kin. In the American context, the book attracts some interest from feminist scholars, while Ruth’s plea to Naomi, “entreat me not to leave thee,” is included in blessing rites for same-sex couples. In the Global South, the book’s interest lies in how the various characters faithfully fulfill their obligations to each other and their relatives. What the North reads in moral or individualistic terms remains for the South social and communal.

Particularly appealing in Global South churches are the wisdom texts, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, but also the New Testament’s Epistle of James. Wisdom literature is popular, in part, because of its profound sense of the transience of life. One of the most-used sermon texts in Africa is James 4:14: “Ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” Echoes of this text often resurface in paraphrased form. In the Sudan, which for some forty years has suffered repeated civil wars and the vicious persecution of non-Muslims, one Christian chorus teaches the grim truth that “[y]ou are here today but tomorrow you’ll be here no more. Our only hope is Jesus Christ, so receive him now.” In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, sermons in south and east Asian churches made great use of James.

If there is a single critical marker distinguishing the Christianity of the modern West from the New Testament world, it is the basic belief in the supernatural character of evil, which is manifested equally in sickness, repression, wickedness, and compulsiveness. The North-South divide is not absolute, and some Euro-American Christians accept theories of the diabolic and demonic, of supernatural warfare and spiritual healing. Yet most northern-world Christians share the bemusement, the mockery, with which the more secular-minded regard such manifestations. For post-Enlightenment Christians in the West, the demonic elements in the New Testament mean so little that they are scarcely even an embarrassment anymore. Many westerners read over such passages and attribute them to a long-departed stage of scientific development. Most northern readers today would label believers in demons and witchcraft irredeemably premodern, prescientific, and probably preliterate-and such beliefs would cast doubt on believers’ claims to an authentic or intelligent religion.

Yet the supernatural approach certainly harks back to the ancient roots of Christianity. To read the gospels is to make the intimate acquaintance of demons and demonic forces. Precious little is left of the New Testament after we purge all mentions of angels, demons, and spirits. Shorn of healing and miraculous cures, the four gospels would be a slim pamphlet indeed. For the earliest followers of Jesus-and presumably for Jesus himself-healing and exorcism were essential components of his proclamation. In his acts of healing, Jesus was not just curing individuals but trampling diabolical forces underfoot, and the signs and wonders repre-sented visible and material tokens of Christ’s victory over real forces of evil. 

Leaders of the early church carried on this tradition. One landmark in the history of trinitarian doctrine is the creed proclaimed by the third-century saint Gregory Thaumaturgus. Yet Gregory’s title name, Thaumaturgus, “wonder-worker,” recalls his fame as an exorcist and healer who repeatedly overcame demons and pagan deities. Describing the Christian message first brought to Europe and the Roman frontier lands, Peter Brown comments that “Christians worshipped the one high God; but unlike modern post-Enlightenment Christians, who are wary of the notion of a universe crowded with intermediary beings, they positively gloried in the closeness of invisible guides and protectors. . . . They did not carry around in their heads the empty skies of [modern European] missionary Christianity.”

For northerners, such demonological readings raise troubling questions about the future of Christianity. Yet a Christian worldview that acknowledges supernatural evil does not disqualify itself from participation in worldly struggles, including movements for far-reaching social and economic transformation. What-ever their spiritual truth-whatever their fidelity to Christian tradition-supernatural approaches can be valuable in moving societies away from pernicious traditional superstitions. For instance, offering distinctively Christian solutions to witchcraft helps disarm the sometimes bloody practices of anti-witchcraft rituals. In a relatively short time, the new Christian emphasis on prayer and Bible reading defuses the fatalism inherent in a traditional system based on such notions as witchcraft, curses, and the power of ancestors. Instead, Christians are taught to rely on faith 
and on the role of the individual, who is no longer a slave to destiny or fate. By treating older notions of spiritual evil seriously, Christians are leading an epochal cultural revolution.

For millions of modern Christians-as for the contemporaries of Gregory Thaumaturgus-proclaiming the power of Jesus means declaring his victory over conquered forces of evil. One hymn from the Transvaal declares:

Jesus Christ is Conqueror
By his resurrection he overcame death itself
By his resurrection he overcame all things
He overcame magic
He overcame amulets and charms
He overcame the darkness of demon possession
He overcame dread
When we are with him
We also conquer.

Such a hymn could easily have been sung by Mediterranean Christians of the first three centuries after Jesus’ time. Still more startlingly martial is a hymn of the Ghanaian Afua Kuma:

If Satan troubles us
Jesus Christ
You who are the lion of the grasslands
You whose claws are sharp
Will tear out his entrails
And leave them on the ground
For the flies to eat.

Demonology is credible for African and Asian churches in a way it can scarcely be for most educated westerners, and so are ideas of exorcism and healing. A leader of the West African Musama Disco Christo Church preaches: “We are all here in this church because we have found healing here. But for this church, the great majority of us here assembled would not be alive today. That is the reason why we are here.” The point is so obvious in Africa, and so very strange to western believers.

Spiritual healing is accepted across most denominations, including those that in North America would be regarded as strictly mainstream. At a healing revival in Uganda, a woman reported being cured of a spinal complaint. After this event, “a whole stream of people . . . stood up one by one to declare joyfully what Jesus had done for them. They had been dumb, mad or psychologically disturbed; crippled, epileptic, hemorrhaging; they had had cancer, epilepsy and asthma. By turns they declared that they had been healed by prayer and the power of the Lord Jesus. So many people wanted to testify that in the end the parish catechist simply resorted to calling out the afflictions and doing a head count of those who had been healed.” This may sound like the typical currency of charismatic movements the world over, except that this particular example occurred in a Roman Catholic church, through the ministry of an Indian priest, and the initial miracle described took place during the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

Western observers of Christianity in the Global South often try to impose familiar categories: divisions between conservative and liberal, for instance, or otherworldly charismatics and this-worldly social activists. Countless American examples demonstrate the flaws in this analysis, but in the churches of the Global South the division makes even less sense. Deliverance and liberation are one.

The biblical enthusiasm in the Global South is often embraced by exactly those groups ordinarily portrayed as the victims of reactionary religion, particu-larly women. In Titus Presler’s book The Transfigured Night, a study of the Zimbabwean night-vigil movement, we hear that “Charismatic renewal, conflict with demons, and the liberation of women are other fruits bearing directly on the churches’ mission in Zimba-bwe.” For African Christians, women’s social emancipation must be seen in the context of spiritual warfare and exorcism: Both are manifestations of “loosing,” of liberation, of deliverance. Through the churches, through the Bible, previously marginalized groups learn to speak out for the first time in the history of those ?cultures.

Partly, the willingness to explore socially radical solutions reflects a fundamental distrust of secular authority and institutions that again marks a difference between North and South. The New Testament portrays persecution as a likely consequence of Christian belief. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus warns his followers of bleak times to come, warns about when they are led before a court, not if. 

Most western readers see in such passages only historical references to long-gone times of persecution. But persecution is a real prospect for much of the new Christianity, and martyrdom is a continuing reality for many African and Asian churches. All too often, secular ideologies appear destructive: Their claims to provide growth and improvement prove farcically false, and they sometimes undertake bloody repression. Even when states are not actively homicidal, the common assumption-in the twenty-first century, as in the first-is that the state is a hostile institution and that secular society must be seen as dangerous territory in which believers tread at their peril. Christians are rarely wise to put their faith in princes or presidents. Southern Christians easily identify with the profoundly anti-state and separatist texts in the New Testament produced by early believers living within the Roman Empire. Such diffidence-to say the least-about the secular world contrasts sharply with attitudes in 
the Global North. If Global South believers are accused of “supernaturalism,” we might well ask what grounds they would have for putting their trust in developments in this unjust world.

In many matters, the Christianity of Africa and Asia operates in a world closely congruent with the early or medieval forms of the faith. Societies with a potent sense of the communal and collective can appreciate the Old Testament notion of national righteousness and national sin, ideas that can justify harsh moral legislation but that also encourage prophetic visions of social justice. A world of biting poverty and endemic disaster understands the transience of human life-and, equally, of states. Societies that know the threat of persecution, that have experienced anti-Christian violence in living memory, feel a strong affinity to the sections of the Bible that regard the secular state coldly, that present suffering as the likely lot of the Christian in this life. In such communities, apocalyptic literature-especially the Book of Revelation-has a near-documentary relevance.

A discussion of “Believing in the Global South” must, of course, examine the nature of belief in the Christian churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But it is also worth thinking about the many in Europe or North America who place their faith in that emerging Christianity, who believe in the Global South. 
Over the past half-century, whenever southern Christianity has gained attention in North America or Europe, it has been through what might be termed two dreams-two competing visions, each trying to deploy that new religious movement for its own purposes. For the left, attracted by visions of liberation, the rise of the South suggests that northern Christians must commit themselves to social and political activism at home, to ensuring economic justice and combating racism, to promoting cultural diversity. Conservatives, in contrast, emphasize the moral and sexual conservatism of the emerging churches and seek to enlist them as 
natural allies. 

For both the Liberation Dream and the Conservative Dream, the new South has seemed useful, politi-cally and rhetorically. Each, in its different way, expects the southern churches to reproduce western obsessions and approaches rather than to evolve their own distinctive solutions to their own particular problems.

We must be cautious about seeing such new movements through the lens of our own conflicts. As an analogy, imagine the situation in the seventh or eighth centuries in what was still, numerically and culturally, the Near Eastern heart of Christianity, in Syria or Mesopotamia. Picture a meeting of church leaders who have gathered to hear a report from a traveler from the remote barbarian world of western Europe. 

The traveler delights his listeners by telling them of the many new conversions among the strange peoples of England or Germany and the creation of whole new dioceses in the midst of the northern forests. Impatiently, the assembled hierarchs press him to answer the key question: This new Christianity coming into being, is it the Christianity of Edessa or of Damascus? Where do the new converts stand on the crucial issues of the day: on the Monothelite heresy, on Iconoclasm? When the traveler tells them, regretfully, that these issues really do not register in those parts of the world, where religious life has utterly different concerns and emphases, the Syrians are alarmed. Is this really a new Christianity, they ask, or is it some new syncretistic horror? How can any Christian not be centrally concerned with these issues? And while Syrian Christian-ity carried on debating these questions to exhaustion, the new churches of Europe entered a great age of spiritual growth and intellectual endeavor.

As in those times, it is extremely difficult to envisage the future trajectory of the faith. Who in that age could have foreseen the global expansion of that poor hatchling, western Christianity? Today, similarly, we see promising signs of growth as southern Christians begin evangelizing the North, in the process changing many familiar aspects of belief and practice and exporting cultural traits presently found only in Africa or Latin America. 

We can only speculate what this future synthesis might look like. But underlying all these possibilities is one solid reality. However partisan the interpretations of the new Christianity, however paternalistic, there can be no doubt that the emerging Christian world will be anchored in the southern continents. When we look at today’s new faces of Christianity, we are seeing the shape of the Christian future.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University and the author of Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. This essay is adapted from the 2006 Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by First Things and the Institute on Religion and Public Life.


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