Western Christians and non-Christians alike are spending more time and money than ever before combating the overwhelming tide of suffering in Africa. The level of dedication brings new life to nineteenth-century missionary David Livingstone’s view of service in Africa: “In this work I truly live; in this work I hope to die.” Although Africa is often seen as an object of missions and service, its influence on disillusioned youth in the West may far outsize its need.
The modernist quest for and promise of a utopian society in the West was utterly discredited by wars and corruption. The Vietnam War and Watergate scandal proved to be particularly destructive to American optimism. Postmodernism—the philosophical expression of this pervasive disillusionment—tore down the modernist structure, but has left nothing in its place.
Postmodern culture is skeptical of Christianity, largely because it aligned and accommodated itself to the modernist enterprise, often losing its distinctively spiritual voice in the process. Even so, postmodernism is unable to build a new cultural enterprise because it is inherently reactionary and deconstructive. The questions posed by African suffering prick the postmodern conscience, unlocking the sealed reservoir of thought that previously seemed impervious to the deeper questions of life. An apologetic opportunity is thus presented to Christians.
Much of the present focus on Africa can likely be traced to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which a rebel tribe massacred nearly a million innocent civilians. Western inaction during that time was appalling, but it also had an awakening effect. Videos streamed across Western media outlets, showing rivers choked with the dead. Ten years later, the film Hotel Rwanda again confronted younger Westerners with the tragedy. It grossed over $33 million in the process, proving that it still resonated.
In Hotel Rwanda, a reporter explains to the main character, “If people see this footage they’ll say, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.” However, upon watching that movie, I vowed “never again” like many others my age. In the recent Sudanese genocide, coalitions of U.S. groups with vastly differing ideologies joined in making it an important public policy issue. Consequently, the United States has taken the lead in exposing and condemning the genocide in the Darfur region of the Sudan.
AIDS and poverty have also become increasingly important issues. U2’s lead singer Bono has performed numerous benefit concerts for the African poor, raising untold millions. Former President George W. Bush also drastically increased the United States’ financial commitment to battling AIDS in Africa. Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, has his “P.E.A.C.E. Plan” that seeks to involve every Western church in the fight against poverty and AIDS.
Even with added attention and action by the West, the enormity of the suffering in Africa is almost beyond imagination. In 2007, approximately 2.4 million people died from AIDS in Africa, according to UNAIDS. The International Development Research Centre reports 80 to 90 percent of the world’s malaria cases as occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in at least one million deaths each year. Although these grisly realities continue to tug on Western heartstrings, they also force hard questions upon Western minds in a time of great intellectual upheaval.
The Christian postmodernist Donald Miller wrote of Africa’s influence on his spiritual journey in Blue Like Jazz. When a friend asked Miller why Africans could perpetrate genocide while Americans seemed to prefer peace, Miller was faced with an uneasy answer: either Africans were inferior, or evil was an equal-opportunity employer of which all derive some business. Except by some unseen grace, Miller concluded, Americans could commit genocide. All are depraved.
Although “the future is Africa” may seem a bit clichéd among Christians, it gains a whole new relevancy when placed in relation to the West’s stagnancy. Money, freedom, and power have not secured the happiness of the West. Rather, these materials have served as the very opiate of the masses that the materialist Marx had supposed of Christianity. They insulated the West from the harder questions of life and death, sin and redemption. Over time, the opiate wore off and the postmodern milieu that is consequently overtaking the West is pointing the young mind to Africa.
In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Malawi, Africa, with a team of seminary classmates to teach future pastors at the Josophat Mwale Theological Institute. While in the remote town of Nkhoma, we interacted with young adults from the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and South Africa—a surprisingly diverse hodgepodge of Westerners in a town that was somewhat removed from tourist hotspots.
Among the many new acquaintances, I befriended four Irish medical students who were spending their summer in a Malawian hospital. They had never met a man who cared about Christianity and were intrigued by my passionate defense of the gospel, the integrity of God’s Word, and the reality of sin and supernatural redemption. Their experiences largely consisted of interactions with a deadened Roman Catholicism and the hypocritical scandals of televangelists in America. Each night, they prodded me with questions about Christianity and we quickly forged a deep friendship as a result.
In their medical work, the Irish team witnessed an array of horrific images. Children died of malaria and other preventable diseases. One twelve-year-old boy fell into a fire and his body was left in the hospital corridor to be viewed by the grieving family—and my Irish friends. The most talented Malawian nurse at the hospital, who was several months pregnant, was hit by a bus one morning and instantly killed. Many a night the Irish team was teary-eyed, but none more than Eimir.
Eimir, like many other Westerners, attempted to drown out the traumatic images and realities with mindless entertainment such as her iPod. In her spare time, she sat in the shade of a rundown Malawian store, sipping a drink and listening to her music. She had no illusions about the world: it was inescapably ugly. Out of the vacuum of meaning created by that knowledge, she sought escape.
While not allowing me to get too close, Eimir did loan me a book that she enjoyed: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. The book was written in the form of letters from a grieving woman to her husband about their son, who had murdered fifteen classmates. The letters were her attempt to come to grips with why her son did what he did. Despite the risk of giving away the ending, I’ll mention there is no philosophical resolution to the book. There were no answers, protagonists, or rays of hope. Something about life was irretrievably messed up. The book was quintessentially postmodern, like Eimir herself.
Sitting at a table one sunny afternoon with the Irish team, I asked an ambiguous yet searching question: Had their time in Africa changed them? Most of the team brushed off the question. “How about you, Eimir?” I asked my struggling friend. She meekly answered, “I’ve changed and will never be the same.”
One night, I found Eimir alone. “I know you say you have been changing,” I told her, “and I can see it.” She blinked away tears and, anticipating where I was going, responded, “I am not there yet.” On the final night that I saw the group, Eimir tightly and tearfully hugged me. The next morning, she went to church. And then she was gone.
Unlike many stirring stories of radical conversions, I did not see Eimir or the other students brought into saving faith by the sovereign working of God. Like fellow postmodernists, Eimir was searching but she was “not there yet.”
In 1955, prominent twentieth-century Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer began L’Abri, an intellectual retreat site of sorts in Switzerland that became a popular destination for disillusioned young Westerners making their way across Europe. Bucking against the anti-intellectual currents of his day, Schaeffer made it his mission to engage the young wanderers who were cast aside by the mindless modernism of his day with lectures and deep discussions. He knew that the downfall of a given cultural paradigm often presented vast opportunities for the church to present the unchanging paradigm revealed in Scripture.
While many Christians bemoan the rise of postmodernism and the fall of a moral, God-fearing society, there is an unprecedented opportunity to rediscover the spirituality of the church and the rich intellectual capacities of those who are led by God’s revelation as the true source of knowledge. Postmodernists care not one bit for hollow morality, petty platitudes, and rogue knowledge. Their rejection of modernism is largely not a rebuke on the gospel—though the gospel is always offensive—but a rebuke of an intellectualism that Kant had untethered from any sense of meaning or telos.
Thus, thousands of young Westerners stream into Africa each year because it presents an authentic view of the world. Human reason and goodness are unable to harness the power of evil because they are each tainted by its power. Millions of dollars and effective social programs are overturned in one night by a flurry of machetes and a coup. It is in Africa that young Westerners can follow in the steps of Descartes, shut themselves off in their own mental universe, and begin to think anew.
Unlike Descartes, however, they know that knowledge does not form in a vacuum. That is where the demise of modernism began. Having cast off the shackles of modernism, postmodernists are experiencing the world, seeking to unlock its secrets. Out of the chaos in Africa, postmodernists find two enticing options for restructuring the ruins of the mind: Christianity and paganism.
Paganism is no easy adversary. It is the defective code written on every human heart; the default for all who seek understanding and meaning. It purports to find the difficult answers within the world and human heart rather than pointing to their folly. In the postmodern ruins of modernism, paganism looks incredibly attractive to the young. Instead of relenting to Paul’s persistent question, “Who will save me from this body of death?” they resort to campy, mindless slogans such as, “Yes we can!”
But before they can give such an emphatic answer, the young must ask what it is they wish to do in the first place. Can they join with the optimists of ages past and construct a more utopian reality through sheer goodwill? If that is the question, then one need look only to Africa. It is the progressive’s dirty little secret—the graveyard for fallacious claims and baseless optimism. An action as simple as holding an HIV-infected orphan in Malawi will surely convince the young wanderer that, no…we really can’t.
The enigma that is Africa provides an apologetic battlefield in which Christians may seize upon the ruined notions of human goodness and point to that alien righteousness and atoning sacrifice of Christ. And the intellectual malaise that has swept over the West might find its “consecration” (to borrow J. Gresham Machen’s term), not in the hallowed halls of academia, but in the vast plains of painful, inescapable reality.
“Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought,” Machen asserted. This mentality was largely lost in the many intellectually vacuous ecumenical and evangelistic movements of the twentieth century. Instead, Christianity was often reduced to mere social programs and “soul-winning.” “Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world,” Machen noted, “but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity.” (For these quotes and many of Machen’s greatest writings, see D. G. Hart, Selected Shorter Writings: J. Gresham Machen [Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2004.])
If biblical orthodoxy is to again be the hallmark of the church and piety its outflow, if the gospel is to once again offer more than therapeutic value to a world wallowing in misery, then the rich, intellectual resources of Christian doctrine and history must again come to the fore. The catalyst for such an intellectual renewal will likely be born in the cradle of the early church: Africa.