Monday, January 5, 2009

Whose Gospel? Which God?: Atheist Matthew Parris and His Hopes For Africa

You may have already heard about or read Matthew Parris's article in the Times, "As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God." In my small daily roundup of blogs, I caught three different links to it (by McCarty, Witherington, and McLaren), so it was hard to miss. McCarty is properly cautious, while McLaren either sees little to critique or simply finds it a great springboard for his own thoughts. To be sure, it's a thought-provoking piece. Here are some quotes:
Now a confirmed atheist, 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. ...

The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. 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. They stood tall. ...

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open. ...

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught. ...

I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders. ...

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.
That should give you a good idea of the article, but please, go read the whole thing.

Before anything else is said, Parris deserves a great deal of credit for writing with such honesty and directness. Writing in praise of a worldview/belief system totally opposite your own is an act of extraordinary courage and generosity. We Christians should be thankful and honoring of this and similar acts.

Further, having spent a summer in East Africa two and a half years ago (here is the blog I kept while there), I certainly recognize the problems he identifies, and I commend him for seeing seemingly impossible problems and recognizing what (he perceives) is having true success.

But, I have to admit that his thesis, and the details in his analysis, concern me. As a Christian -- as a member of God's mission in the world -- and as someone deeply concerned with Africa's problems, I wonder, reading his take on both the Christianity offered to and received by Africans as well as its perceived effects, whether we ought to applaud and agree with the picture he paints. Is it faithful to the gospel of Jesus? Are its effects, seen in the present and hoped for in the future, faithful to that gospel?

I planned to record my own response, but I am wondering what you think. Read the full article; sit on it; then comment. Let me know your thoughts. Are you on board? Does he hit the nail on the head? Or do you have concerns? If so, what are they? Let's explore this together, rather than nod off to 3,000 words by me a week from now. Obviously, I already showed you my cards (or at least their suit): I have concerns. But don't feel the need to agree or take that route; I just wanted to be honest in my presentation. And now I want to know others' honest reaction.

(Final thought/note: I just thought to email my friends in Africa who are missionaries there. Let's get people in the know and on the ground in on the conversation. No use in a bunch of know-it-alls in America blabbing without them included!)

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