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!)


  1. Thanks for all the links my way. You already mentioned my thoughts. I'd love to hear your concerns here or at my post.

    I'm adding you to my blogroll. It's nice to find CofC folks talking about these things in the blogging world.

  2. Thanks for the blogroll addition! And you're more than welcome on the links your way -- it was a blessing to discover your blog. I've actually been trying to find your email address but have yet to have success. It was certainly a joy, after seeing you on Sojourners, to find out that you are a fellow CoC man.

    Hopefully we'll get a few more in on the comments and go from there, either here or in a new post. Thanks for the impetus.

  3. This is the paragraphthat struck me:

    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.

    I'm not even sure what it is that bothers me about this, but it just rubs me the wrong way I guess. Maybe the individualism seems more American than Christian? Maybe the rejection of the "collective" seems to de-value the church? Maybe it bothers me that the message Christians supposedly offer doesn't include Jesus? And maybe the language of "smashing" through their worldview bothers me? It sounds like American Christianity being spread in Africa, rather than African's developing and inculturating Christianity within their own cultures.

    However, those are just my negative thoughts. I did find his article intriguing and really honest. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

  4. I'm 100% with you on your reaction to that paragraph, Garrett. It sounds like you didn't respond to the article with much concern/negativity, though; if so, what did you find intriguing or positive about it? I don't want to just look for the bad.

  5. Well, first of all, I didn't go read the article. All I have read is the section you included in your blog.

    But, after I commented I thought about it more and I have two other thoughts. First, for the author of that article, what is the end he wants Africa to move toward? It sounds like he wants Africa to thrive in a global market economy and compete with the rest of the world. I guess my question would be, what are the proper means to accomplish that goal? Does Jesus really get you to that goal? It seems to me that it would take a distortion of the gospel for it to assist in reaching that goal.

    Secondly, it bothers me that people outside of Africa always seems to know how to "fix" the "problems" of Africa. That is, we define what their problems are and then we decide how to fix them. Perhaps that is the "problem" with Africa; that is, everyone else wants to interfere in such a way that they decide what needs to change and how to change it.

    Finally, in a very general way, I think the author of the article is right. I think the Christian faith would be "good" for people in Africa, as long as goodness is defined by the way and the cross of Christ. Just as I think Jesus would be "good" for America, Asia, and Europe, I think it would be "good" for Africa.

  6. OK, Brad, here are my long-anticipated (read here: antiquated) thoughts on your journal article concerning the Times article by Matthew Parris:
    I too was quite appreciative of his honest thoughts, though whenever I read anything from a professing athiest, I always want to have a lengthy conversation to determine what kind of god or God in which (though I would rather say whom) the athiest does not believe. Even in this article I hear talk about God, Christians, and social action, but nothing said directly connecting the action that he affirms with the life of Christ.
    So, the omission of a direct connection to the life of Christ is the very ellipsis that would give the article any meaning for me. I think what results is an affirmation of Characteristics that are more a reflection of a triumphalistic god, in whom the author does not believe, but whose characteristics seem hauntingly similar to the omnipotent global economic powers that be. So he affirms that people are confident and look you in the eye, that they have something to say about the spirits and ancestors and tribal heirarchy. But, nothing is specifically stated as to what it is that they are saying. Now, I think that it will definitely get yo a better job in America if you look the big rich man that can offer you a job in the eye, but there are cultural differences that relate to respect and honor connected here with how you address someone. And, within African theology, much MUCH of the framework begins precisely with how to recover a truly African reading of scripture and an African espistemology. Many have worked beyond this to say that colonialization is part of the African history that informs the present formation and re-formation of the Christian world here, but for a long time there have been many who romanticize the traditional African philosophy and religions with nary a prophetic statement. So much of Christianity in Africa, particularly within higher education has aimed at integrating, ancestors, spirits, and social heirarchy into the local brand of Christianity. It has often been the lens through which Christianity has been understood here. And, my personal belief is that because so much of the understanding of Christianity has been either prosaically apologetic or vehemently against the colonial oppressions and manipulations, that few people here are equipped to offer a prophetic voice to their churches, which in turn produces churches that look very similar to government structures. So many Christians and their churches are either chasing the latest health and wealth spirit or personality, or they are in an institutional confort where they can pass all responsibility up to the next level of the heirarchy without assuming any of that responsibility for themselves. Now there are exceptions- men and women who are living faithfully to the narrative of God's work in the world, which we believe is most acutely portrayed in the life of Christ. But, I am not sure that they are the ones that look the most like the people whom he has described. However, I leave this article with the conviction that the church needs now more than ever to have a voice and a leading step in the field of development here, but that it is considerate of the issues that have led Africa to its present situation, and that it takes serious thougt considering what development looks like through the lens of the cross of Christ. If you read this, let me know what you think.