The Bible and African Christianity

David F. Wells
Thursday, July 1st 2010
Jul/Aug 2010

There are now more Anglicans in Nigeria than in England. This is a reflection of the stunning growth of Christianity, not only in Nigeria but in many parts of Africa. On any given Sunday in Zambia, for example, 80 percent will now be in a church of some sort.

In 1900, it is estimated, there were only 10 million Christians in all of Africa, but by 2000, there were 360 million–an annual rate of growth close to 17 percent. As a result, the numerical center of gravity of the Christian world has moved out of Europe and into the global South. The "typical" face of Christianity is no longer white, European, older, and well educated but rather brown or black, young, and somewhat uneducated. This is what Philip Jenkins brought into sharp focus in his 2002 book, The Next Christendom.

Statistics, though, tell only a part of the story. What we do not learn from these statistics is what the level of Christian instruction is in the churches that have grown so extraordinarily, what is actually being believed, whether Christians who attend are having an impact on their society, and what difficulties they face. It is part of this larger story, one that lies behind the statistics, that I want to pick up in this article. I will do this by comparing two points in time about 150 years apart. I am thinking of the Africa that David Livingstone found and the Africa that we know today. I will be thinking of what has transpired between these two points in time. In doing this, I have the role of the Bible in mind in particular.

Livingstone's Mission

First, then, let us begin with David Livingstone. This young Scotsman was launched on his missionary way to Africa by an address he heard in London in 1840. The speaker was Sir Thomas Fowell and his subject was slavery. Although the slave trade had been made illegal in Britain in 1807, it nevertheless continued unabated in Africa. The principal culprits were the Portuguese and the Arab traders who came down from the north. Sir Thomas made the argument that the best way to stop Africans from selling each other into slavery for the cloth and guns they wanted was to bring commerce to their continent. Prosperity would take away the incentive that drove part of the slave trade.

Africa, though, was a hard nut to crack, as Livingstone was to discover. In search of ways to open it up to trade, he became the first European to traverse the continent from its east coast to its west, along the way crossing the desert that had stood, as he put it, "as the great obstacle to progress." (1) And in 1858, he secured a grant from the British government to prove that the Zambezi River was navigable. If Livingstone had been proved correct, the heart of Africa could have been opened up for commerce in this way. His dream, however, struck a snag. He stumbled upon the mighty Victoria Falls! At the falls, the Zambezi plunges almost four hundred feet down a vertical face, making any navigation impossible.

During his many other travels, he also discovered something else equally important: Africa was desperately fragmented into thousands of tribes, all with their own kings, customs, and territories. He saw that without some transcendent Good that could trump mere tribal interest and petty territorial sovereignties, Africa would remain forever divided and therefore always vulnerable to attack from the outside. This transcendent Good, this ground of unity and common purpose in Africa, he believed, could be found in Christian faith.

This, in fact, had been Britain's plan for India as well, but this part of the colonial enterprise ran into stiff resistance from India's Hindus and Muslims. In 1858, Queen Victoria renounced any further attempts at Christianizing Britain's colonies. Livingstone, though, ignored his queen. He believed that what had failed in India could, and should, succeed in Africa. Thus it was that he came to sum up his life's work as establishing the connection between three C's: "Christianity, Commerce and Civilization." (2)

Livingstone died in 1863. He heart was cut out and buried under a tree in Africa, and his body was dried, embalmed, and carried back to London where it was entombed in Westminster Abbey. Despite this great national honor, his mission in Africa had actually been a resounding failure in many ways.

At the time of his death, there were only three certain converts from all of his missionary work, though much gospel seed had been sown. But what is most amazing about this story is what happened after his death to the other two C's: "civilization" and "commerce." These were simply subsumed under England's colonial ambitions with large consequences for the Christianity that has now emerged from the shadows of this colonialism.

The Mission of Colonialism

In the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the two most successful colonial powers in Africa were France and Britain. France came to the spoils a little late, and so quite a lot of what she came to possess was desert. Britain, who was there earlier, got the lion's share.

There have always been conquests in human history. Usually, though, the conquering nation has left the culture of the conquered people intact, even if they took its possessions and land. That was where colonialism was different. It had more elevated goals. Niall Ferguson says that Britain "dreamed not just of ruling the world, but of redeeming it. It was no longer enough for them to exploit other races: now their aim was to improve them." (3) They did so through British administration, establishing law, and by producing economic stability. (4) As empires go, this was a benign rule, but it nevertheless also generated a sense of humiliation among those who had been conquered.

The French thought about Africa in a similar way. They spoke proudly of their mission civilisatrice. This was set forth in a lofty way in 1944 at the Brazzaville Conference. All of their possessions would become as French as were the French themselves. They did have some success in terms of the language, but French culture no more "took" in Africa than did British culture. And both nations, through their actions, excited charges of racism in the 1950s and 1960s (5) and were condemned in the United Nations.

It is curious how different the story of colonialism could be. Despite having been colonized, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and India have all flourished since their colonial days. In Africa, though, the story has been rather different. Here, it is the deficits of colonialism that seemed to loom much larger, and weigh more heavily, than any benefits. (6) What the colonial powers did for Africa is now completely eclipsed by what they did to Africa.

By the 1950s, Britain was exhausted after two world wars and had decided it was time to leave as had France. By the 1960s, most colonies in Africa had been liberated and the colonial powers had packed up and gone home. What they left behind, however, was the sour taste among Africans of having been subjugated. On the other side of the equation, they did also leave behind governmental and commercial structures, but these quickly regressed in many countries. In fact, parts of Africa were soon to become little different from what Livingstone had known more than a century earlier.

There has been an enormous amount of literature devoted to understanding what happened. At the very least, we can say that tribal loyalties are far deeper in Africa than are national considerations. The national boundaries that the colonial powers drew in the nineteenth century reflected their conquests and not the human reality on the ground. It is no surprise that when they left, some of the ancient tribal fault lines reappeared, though it is also the case that many tribes also lived peacefully, side by side, and even intermarried. However, Livingstone had seen that tribalism was Africa's Achilles heel and had sought to address this matter through the connection between his three C's.

Today, though, Africa is seriously fractured and, partly for this reason, prosperity is a rarity. Indeed, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the poverty that is the direct outcome to its many failed governments, tribal rivalries, civil wars, and the systemic corruption present in so many countries. Despite vast natural resources, Africa is a continent "mired in steaming squalor, misery, deprivation, and chaos. It is in the throes of a seemingly incurable crisis," George Ayittey writes. (7)

In 2007, according to the economic formula the International Monetary Fund uses, what the average U.S. citizen could buy, using the dollar in the U.S economy, was what the combined total of the purchasing power was of average citizens in all of the following countries: Angola, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Or, to put it differently, the average Chadian had 3.7 percent of the purchasing power of the average American, the average Ghanaian had 4.6 percent, and the average Liberian 0.8 percent.

These are cold statistics, but you do not need to know these numbers to know that there is deep, gnawing poverty in Africa. You see it. It is there in every large city, swollen as each one is with the rootless and aimless who congregate there. In Uganda, they are called bayaye. "They drift this way and that, sit in the shade, stare, nap," writes Ryszard Kapuscinski. "They have nothing to do. No one is expecting them. Most often they are hungry…idle, awaiting who knows what, living who knows where–the gapers of the world." (8)

Christianity Enculturated

The easiest way to understand two of the most important developments in recent African Christianity is to think about this background. These developments are, first, the response that emerged from the colonialism I have just briefly described and, second, the most popular response to the disease and poverty to which I have also just alluded.

First, the response to colonialism. In 1966 in Nigeria, the All Africa Conference of Churches declared that what African churches needed was an African theology. An African theology would be different from all Western theologies. In the years that followed, in works such as those by John Mbiti and Bolaji Idowu, we came to see what this meant. In the interests of redressing wounded African dignity, this theology asked that the underlying ideas in traditional African religion be accepted as part of its dignity. That meant that Christianity in Africa should properly be syncretistic and merge with the African spirit. But, as Tersur Aben argues, this was really about fending off the insulting European attitude that Africans are "primitive." (9) And while this desire is entirely understandable, its unforeseen theological consequence was to produce yet another version of Protestant liberalism. God's Word became just one word among many others, its revelation neither exclusively true nor therefore finally authoritative. In this version, African Christianity became more African than it was Christian.

The other response, which adapted to Africa's poverty and disease, has been equally disastrous though for entirely different reasons. It has been brought with the invasion of the health-and-wealth Pentecostals. They have come from both Europe and the United States. Ostensibly, what they have brought, by contrast with the African theologies, is an authoritative Word or, at least, an apparent word from God. It promises miraculous release from disease and poverty. It is a message that has become wildly popular in Africa for reasons too obvious to need stating. But let us be clear. This kind of Christianity reflects its affluent origins in the West with their sense of entitlement to comfort and health. It is more Western than it is Christian.

A few years ago, I was speaking with some pastors in Nairobi, Kenya. They told me of what had happened when one of the most prominent health-and-wealthers had come to Nairobi. One of these pastors told me of a woman from his church who had sold her house and given the proceeds to this preacher based on his promise that her gift would return to her tenfold. It did not. Actually, it went back to Europe. For the preacher's next visit, she sold her petrol station, which was her only means of support, and again gave him the money. She looked for a big pay-off from God. The big return never happened. She was left with nothing.

The popularity of this kind of message is obviously driven by desperate need and aching deprivation. And, from a distance, we might marvel at the kind of naivety that leads simple people to give what little they have in a gamble of this kind. But we should marvel much more at how cruel and heartless are the preachers who take advantage of these the poor, exploiting them, rather than caring for them as Scripture instructs us to do. If Scripture is authoritative, the church needs to practice its truth or it will undermine the very Scripture it says it upholds.

Christianity Renewed

Africa's suffering has touched the conscience of the West. In the last fifty years, about $1 trillion of aid has been given, enough for $1,000 to every man, woman, and child alive today. Massive as this effort has been, though, it has not produced the changes that Africa needs. The Western benevolence has failed, and this failure underscores the need for a vital Christian faith in Africa.

Much of this aid has been misspent and much of it has made its way into the pockets of politicians. It is an old adage among aid workers in Africa that the rich have markets and the poor have bureaucrats. (10) What this means is that most simple, ordinary people end up with nothing. In fact, we need to go further. Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist trained at Harvard and Oxford and who worked with the World Bank, argues that aid, as well intentioned as it has been, has actually stunted Africa's growth. With respect to corruption, "Aid is one of its greatest aides," (11) propping up the venal who are in power. Not only so, but she argues that it has short-circuited the process of producing economic growth and has created a culture of dependency. Western aid has become a disease when well-meaning governments and rock stars intended it to be a cure.

The answer to Africa's poverty and suffering is, undoubtedly, very complex. Nevertheless, I think we can say with certainty that an African Church that is living with integrity and daily uprightness will do much to hold in check the corruption that has eaten away at the core of so many of Africa's nations. And it just might be able to moderate tribal tensions, too.

This integrity is no easier to build in Africa than it is in the U.S., but here as there, we can say with certainty that we will not see a church strong in its character and clear in its convictions without the Word of God being preached, taught, believed, and practiced. In this connection, there are two positive developments I need to highlight.

First, in 1994, the Second Pan Africa Christian Leadership Assembly met in Nairobi and, as a result of this meeting, the Africa Bible Commentary was commissioned. In 2006, it was published, a work of 1,600 pages and written by sixty-nine African scholars. The assembly's reasoning, Tokunboh Adeyemo tells us, was that the leaders present recognized that the church in Africa is a mile wide but only an inch deep and that "deficient knowledge of the Bible and faulty application of its teaching" is the "primary weakness" of the church. (12) This work is a magnificent achievement. It will give preachers the tool they need to produce sermons that are biblical, which is exactly what the churches need to hear. This is the key to their health because, as John Stott often said, the pew rarely ever rises above the pulpit.

Second, an ambitious daily Bible study program is currently being written by the Rafiki Foundation and is already in wide circulation in Africa. Although it was conceived for Rafiki's orphanages, which are in ten African countries, the 30,000-page project is already being used far more widely outside the orphanages. It is a set of 600 lessons covering every book of the Bible. It is written at eight levels. The adult lessons are written first and then converted into seven different grade levels for children. Not only are there church schools that are now using it to teach the Bible but, in a pilot program, the Uganda government has also introduced it in its public schools. Other governments have expressed interest in doing so, too.

These two developments, and others like them, will not by themselves solve Africa's deep, complex, and seemingly intractable problems. But they are steps in the right direction. The faith that so many Africans have embraced now needs to be deepened, informed, and instructed so that it might reach greater maturity. The only way lives will be changed, corruption challenged, and the underlying tribal tendencies that lead so easily to self-destruction checked is if God's truth takes root. This is not a novel conviction. It is a truth that has to be learned afresh in every generation and in every culture. It is only when the church's blood becomes "bibline," as Charles Spurgeon once put it, that its witness becomes effective because its life becomes Christ-like. This is the story of the church's past, and it is a story from which we need to learn afresh, not only in Africa but also in the United States.

1 [ Back ] I. Schapera, ed., Livingstone's Missionary Correspondence 1841-1856 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961), 131.
2 [ Back ] Meriel Buxton, David Livingstone (London: Palgrave, 2001), 19-20.
3 [ Back ] Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons of Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 116.
4 [ Back ] Don Taylor, The Years of Challenge: The Commonwealth and the British Empire 1945-1958 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959), 234-35.
5 [ Back ] This case was argued vehemently by the Algerian Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963).
6 [ Back ] Many of these are cited in Samir Amin, Neo-Colonialism in West Africa, trans. Francis McDonagh (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 196.
7 [ Back ] George B. N. Ayittey, Africa in Chaos (London: St. Martin's Press, 1998), 6.
8 [ Back ] Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 138.
9 [ Back ] Tersur A. Aben, African Christian Theology: Illusion and Reality (Bukuru, Nigeria: African Christian Textbooks, 2008), 58.
10 [ Back ] William E. Easterly, The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 165-209.
11 [ Back ] Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009), 48.
12 [ Back ] Tokunboh Adeyemo, ed., Africa Bible Commentary (Nairobi: Word Alive Publishers, 2006), ix.
Thursday, July 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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