Ancestor worship at Cambridge

A week ago Saturday, Ethan Sanders our favorite American PhD student here, graciously toured us all around Cambridge. As we stood in one particular sacred hall lined with plaques venerating various alumni, Nelson muttered under his breath: “Ancestor worship.” Think about it. If we saw Africans building idols and paying homage to their grandfathers the way we ooh and aah over our heroes of previous generations . . . what would we call that?

On Sunday, Nelson and I attended Saint Andrew the Great (STAG) – a very nice and lively evangelical church. It has vibrant worship with theologically weighty songs and sound exegetical preaching. We thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the service, but lining the walls were plaques commemorating dead saints from the past; one of them is prominently buried right in front of the pulpit.

How many buildings do you know built to keep the memory of our ancestors alive. Living in Washington for nine years, I was regularly awed by our great monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and even Reagan. (Take a moment to reflect on much $$$ has been invested and how far people come from to venerate these ancestors.)

Let me push the point a little closer to home. Many friends of mine can hardly speak a sentence of theology without appealing to the authority of the ancestors: Calvin, Warfied, Hodge, Machen, Van Til? (I guess that betrays where I went to school.) Calvin College anyone? (BTW, that’s not where I went.) Or more broadly: “I’m Lutheran, Weslyan, Warrenian”(wait; he’s not dead yet!;-)

Not the same you say? Maybe you need to take a second look at it from a different perspective. 😉 Shall we fight our own Christianized sychronistic pagan idolatry, or will we ask a few Africans how it is that they “worship” their ancestors. (Hint: many forms of “ancestor worship” are more about keeping the memory of the ancestors alive for a few generations.) Or maybe you’d prefer to keep on calling the African ancestors animistic demons while we . . . ?

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [i.e. dead ancestors], let us . . . (Heb. 12:1).

Here’s a picture of Nelson and Peterat a shrine for Sir Isaac Newton.

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4 thoughts on “Ancestor worship at Cambridge

  1. David Ker says:

    To defend the distinction a bit…the Westerner doesn’t imagine that by visiting these shrines they will receive assistance from the dead. Or that by leaving offerings at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial we will placate an angry ancestor who is cursing our crops. Mandela-worship is a similar situation.

    Still, it’s fun to think about and must have Africans scratching their heads.

  2. Ben says:

    True, I’ve worded this post to be provocative (isn’t that what you asked for?), but:
    1.My friends aren’t conviced that Westerners don’t derive some form of psychological benefit from visiting these monuments, and they claim this isn’t much different than some of their cultural practices . . . It roots people in their histories and helps them people feel better about themselves and their futures.

    2. Keep in mind that there is diversity within African practices here. Even within Kenya, neighboring groups can have radically different practices. True, some are extremely “pagan”, but others might be more benign.

    3. There might be certain aspects of this African worldview about ancestors that line up more with the biblical perspective than our own Western views do.

    4. In light of 3, there might be reason to work on “redeeming” the postive dimensions of this worldview for Christ, and rather than issuing blanket condemnations.

  3. […] 10 Sep 2008 · No Comments In a recent post, we began to explore the phenomenon of Western ancestor worship from an African perspective. Last […]

  4. […] 14, 2008 — jutta It made me smile when Ben Byerly wrote a tongue in cheek blog entry about ancestor worship in England. I thought it was great to help us see our own culture from a different perspective. I liked it […]

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