I bristle every time I hear someone make this statement, “African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.”
- So-called “Christianity” everywhere could be labeled shallow. I don’t think “Christianity” that happens to be located in Africa has a corner on the shallow market.
- Examples cited are often comparing apples and oranges – e.g. seminary students in the West to the uneducated churchgoer in Africa.
- The underlying assumption is that depth seems to be measured on certain intellectual articulations of “sacred” – especially Reformed – theologies. I’ll take lifestyle Christianity over intellectualized faith any day.
- The depth of faith I have seen in many Africans – East and West – puts any other Christianity I’ve seen to shame – especially the petty Christianity I’ve seen portrayed by so many “deep theologians” of the West.
I sometimes laugh (or cry?) when I hear Americans say that they have come here “to help strengthen the faith of the Africans.” I think to myself, “my friend, you have no idea. I hope you pay enough attention to let the African saints show you what deep faith really looks like.”
Having stated that strong caveat, I do think there is a reason Christianity hasn’t taken root to the depth that it could have. Bottom line: I think we have tried to grow the Gospel on the imported the rocks of Western and modernist cultures and have neglected the fertile soil of the African cultures. My mind was going in several directions at this point when I read Mark at Under the Baobab Tree’s review of David Smith’s Mission After Christendom by David Smith. I’ll pull out a few quotes, but you’d do well to read the whole post
. . . the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years has been very much tied to Christendom – Europe and North America – and the modernist worldview . . .
. . . Missions were from the western church to the heathen nations, who were seen as backward and in need of the religion and civilisation of the west. As such, they often went hand in hand with colonial power and ideology, sometimes with the justification that “the heathens get saved, and in return we get their natural resources”. . .
. . . The main message of the book is that when mission is strongly tied to christendom and modernism (or to any one particular culture), the message it spreads is a poor version of Christianity, . . .
The best form of Christianity:
is . . . as for the Saxons in ninth-century Europe, a mass movement toward Christianity resulted not in the abandonment of traditional culture, but in its revitalisation. . . [emphasis mine.]
. . . reflects a dynamic inculturation of the gospel among a people whose world-view is strikingly different from that of other churches . . . which simply adopted imported Western patterns of spirituality and worship. . .
. . . “We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible. We want you to come and read the Bible together with us”. . .
The Gospel will always critique the elements of a culture that are bent away from God’s intentions and distort the image of God that humans bear. Unfortunately, many of the critiques that came in the name of the gospel were simply against things with which Westerners were either unfamiliar or uncomfortable. As a result, many of the Christianities in Africa became schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have the “church world” where we can say and sing all the right things. On the other hand, we have the rest of the world which we know to be true from our basic worldviews. Sometimes the two worlds never met.
If we truly understand the contexts of Scripture, we will see that God’s Word has always been presented in the language and images that resonate with the worldviews with which they come in contact. (Andrew Walls and Kwame Bediako show us how this was done in the ear of the early church.)
A couple clarifications:
I don’t ever want to diminish the self-sacrifice and compassion of the self-sacrificing, pioneer missionaries, but I do wish that there had been more cultural awareness and appreciation for where African cultures reflected the image of God. There are many examples of missionaries who did this brilliantly.
This is also not to deny that there are many gross distortions of the Gospel here. But the bottom line is that African cultures and many manifestations of African Christianity have a lot to offer the West when it comes to deeply rooted faith.
This is a subject I’m bound to return to many times.