I don’t need God, but those Africans sure do . . . (on Matthew Parris’s popular column)

For the last month, a Matthew Parris Times column – As an Atheist, I truly believe Africa Needs God – has been making it’s way around the Christian blogosphere and Facebooking world (too many to link to). Today, I got yet another e-mail suggesting I read this great article, so I thought I’d better join What an African Woman Thinks and finally post this qualification – incomplete as it is here.

I confess that my first response was as enthusiastic as many of the others I’ve read. Finally, someone without any particular missionary agenda (an atheist no less) recognizes the difference God makes – a difference that goes beyond what NGOs and economic aid can offer.

I don’t want to take anything away from that, but as I read further and began to reflect, I started to feel a little bit queasy. Here’s why:

First, let me reassure you that I believe God can and does make significant differences in all cultures everywhere (several of my blogging friends e.g. Ancient Hebrew Poetry: . . .why the world needs Christianity) have been quick to point out the need for this expansion to Parriss’s observation.) Worldview matters. I believe the work of God’s spirit in someone’s life does free them from fears and help them engage the world more deeply. Second, missionaries (including White North American and European missionaries) have played an important role in the spread of faith in Jesus and should be appreciated – a couple of present-day, white missionary heroes are here. Just keep in mind that the vast, vast majority of African believers in Jesus were led to Christ by other black, African believers. (Don’t forget too that parts of Africa were “Christian” centuries ago – Ethiopia for one.)

. . . I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good. . .

Parris says some good things, but the way he says it and some of the insinuations he makes need to be challenged.

THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND:

  • This is an article written BY a white man ABOUT Africans TO a primarily white (British) audience. (Specifically, if I read him correctly, a Brit who grew up in Africa under a colonial government and has only briefly “toured” Africa since. The fact that he still speaks of Malawi in his mind as Nyasaland says something to me.)
  • How much in-depth knowledge of African cultures (and their varieties) does the author actually exhibit?

I would have felt a lot better, if he had had made even one passing reference to the impact of God on his own beliefs or his own culture. It’s one thing to say Africans need God. It’s another thing to say, the faith of Christian Africans has made me re-examine my own beliefs and implications for my own culture (Do you see the difference?) Is Parris conflicted about the difference God makes – overall ? Or is his thinking about God limited to his manifestations in Africa? My suspicion is that it is the latter. It’s the exclusive, repeated emphasis to “in Africa” that bugs me most about the above quote.

On to stereotyping . . . at one point Parris writes,

. . . There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. . .

“The passive African!” is a common stereotype I hear bantered around. Even a racist, stereotyping Westerner like me sees the absurdity of this caricature as soon as someone says “Nigerian.” (Sorry, to my Nigerian brothers for fighting one stereotype with another insidious ethnic caricature.) I admit I have frequently witnessed “passivity” when someone didn’t want to do what a white man wanted him to, but . . . enough of that.

When I think of “Africa” – across the entire broad spectrum – vibrant is one of the first words that comes to my mind. (Active hospitality is another. . . effervescent, lively . . . let me stop.)

Let’s also take “fear of the ancestors.” In my own life experience I have never been to a more fearful place in world than the good ol’ USofA. Think about much fear has been used as a political tool in the last decade or so (even more embarrassingly so by some Christians in the last election cycle).

I also love the collectivity of the African cultures I’ve experienced (something Parris denigrates); I find it a lot more biblical than the Western individualism he champions.

Granted, I’m know some aspects of certain traditional African cultures are oppressive. Isn’t that the case everywhere?

I asked a couple of my African friends, what difference Jesus had made in their cultures. Most answers related to specific rituals and rites. Not surprisingly, passivity vs. active engagement never came up. Thomas, my Liberian friend, said that his culture was traditionally known as a very loving and caring culture. However, those who follow Jesus now extend this love and care beyond ethnic boundaries – something that would would not have happened before.

And so I ask my fellow Westerners, what difference does Jesus make in your own culture? What positive dimensions of your traditional culture does he liberate, enliven, or help to reach it’s potential. What corrupted cultural attitudes and values does he need to cut away or redeem for his original purposes?

Why were we soooo enthusiastic that this particular article was about Africa?

There’s a lot more I could say here; I’ve really only started, but What an African Woman Thinks has already written some of it much more eloquently. My main purpose here is simply to begin raising a little more awareness about some of the attitudes and prejudices (many subconscious) some of us Westerners have towards “Africa.”

The following critical questions might be helpful to keep in mind when reading literature (or watching videos) about Africa:

  • WHO is writing the article, FROM what background, and TO what audience. (This very blog post may be a case in point 😉
  • How would Africans (especially sub-Saharan black Africans) feel about the article or movie and how they are portrayed in it?
  • What is the purpose of this piece? (Look for especially for subconscious motives.)
  • Does it positively appreciate traditional African cultural values?
  • Is it equally critical of Western cultures?
  • Does it recognize the wide diversity between different African cultures?
  • What kinds of caricatures or stereotypes are being painted?
  • Who is the protagonist? Are positive black contributions recognized? Does this fall under the genre of the white hero saving the poor African? (Some good movies that come to mind are The Power of One, Tears of the Sun, Blood Diamond?actually just about every movie of Africa I can think of. I can’t stomach Out of Africa and the book was much, much worse – says Christi; I never bothered to read it.)
  • I could go on.

Let the conversations begin . . .

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8 thoughts on “I don’t need God, but those Africans sure do . . . (on Matthew Parris’s popular column)

  1. Rombo says:

    First, you blog is wearing brand new clothes!

    Second, thank you, thank Christi, for that assessment of the trully winceworthy ‘Out of Africa’.

    Third… third maybe I should come back and say later … it’s not coming out right.

    Thanks for posting on this.

  2. Ben,
    I’m not sure what to say about Parris’ misinformation about continental Africa’s past, especially as it pertains to Africa’s relationship with Christianity. Helas, Mr. Parris has been poorly taught and misled, to think about Africa and Africans as a people without culture and civilization. It’s even worst and more dangerous when such idea still exits and is prevalent among educated people this modern technological-scientific age. Oden has written a fine work on “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity.” Shaped Western Christianity”

    I appreciate your post.
    Lou

  3. Ben M says:

    Ben,

    This article generated a lot of enthusiasm not because it accurately describes the effect that Jesus can have on a culture or because it portrays anything more than a caricature of Africans.

    The enthusiasm is due to the fact that Parris admits he’s seen a positive difference in the lives of African Christians where as a Western atheist he’s in no way predisposed to find one.

    You raise the good point that he likely has some subconscious motives for making the case that he does, but all the same it appears that he’s made a big leap in his own mind from saying that Christian missionary efforts are good merely because they’ve brought schools and hospitals to Africa to saying that these efforts have changed people’s worldviews for the better.

    I suspect this is a big concession for him, and a significant step towards a change in his own worldview. May the Holy Spirit continue to reveal truth to him until he sees the Light more fully!

    At the same time, your post reminds us to question what resonates with us in this article, and not to confuse Christian worldview with a Western individualism or in any way promote a distorted and superficial view of African culture.

    Thank you for pushing us past the initial satisfaction of having someone agree with us that Jesus transforms lives!

  4. Ben says:

    Rombo: Thanks. First, It’s easy to change clothes in WordPress; I know one guy that changes them almost every day. I don’t like the black background, but I do like the font and layout (I’m still looking). Third, you’ve still got me hanging in suspense.

    Thanks as always for your support, Lou.

    Ben, too bad we weren’t able to discuss this article while you were here. I noticed it (from several blogs) the day before you left, but didn’t really read it until you were gone. I do believe he made a really important point, I just wanted people to recognize that it ALSO came with a stinging imperialistic and racist slap.

    You’ve made me want to break my self-imposed moratorium on new posts (I’m merely clearing out the pre-written docket before I shut down)and write something about the divergent complexities of African missions. Maybe you could write a brief guest post on your observations about the differences between say Kenya and other countries and the roles that Westerners can or should play in each context. We’d all benefit from hearing your perspective. (And you’d save me from an important “distraction.”

  5. Thandi says:

    As an African myself, I almost skipped reading your blog post on this topic thinking you might have similar view with Parris. Glad I was wrong, good assessment. I’ll post a link on my blog (www.buckaroothandi.blogspot.com) to this article.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed visiting your blogs too, and I didn’t miss your reference to the ABC Lions…if you get my name connection…though I’m sure that would be a long conversation too.

  6. Thandi says:

    indeed, indeed that would be a long conversation. In any case all the best and keep up the good work.

  7. mands81 says:

    Brown south African woman saying that God is needed in Africa but not the white,western,christian God that was,is,and will be brought to our beautiful continent.

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