By Greg Jones
Just a century ago, in all of Africa, there were merely ten million Christians, and most lived in three countries: Egypt & Ethiopia with their Christian communities dating from antiquity, and South Africa, with its large European population. Today, there are roughly four-hundred million Christians in Africa. Christian growth in Africa has occurred in a context of horrific death, disease, war and oppression. In contrast, since the last major Western wars and economic depressions ended a half-century ago, Christianity in Europe and North America is fighting major decline.
But, lest we assume the Bible is a novelty in Africa, we must remember that Africans have been reading the Bible for a long time! Indeed, Africans have been engaging the Word of God in the Bible for millennia.
Africa is not only mentioned in the Bible, it has long been a place where biblical interpretation has flourished. Indeed, many of the Church’s fathers were Africans in the first four centuries of Christianity. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria, and Augustine of Hippo – were all Africans.
It is easy for us today to forget that just over thirteen centuries ago, Christianity was the dominant religion among civilized folks in Northern Africa and into the Horn. But, with the conquest of those lands by Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, all that changed nearly overnight. Most Christian Africans converted to the new religion, and only a handful of Christians survived to modern times. Apart from pockets in Egypt and Ethiopia, Christianity did not thrive in Africa between the Arab conquest and the early modern period.
When Europeans began to colonize sub-Saharan Africa in earnest, in the 19th century, they brought missionaries with them, to help with the project. As such, the incoming missionaries brought not only the Bible to sub-Saharan Africa, they brought also their modern Western worldview – a worldview more like Thomas Jefferson than Origen of Alexandria.
Most modern Africans have mixed thoughts about the way they received the Bible from the West. On the one hand, it is clear they appreciate having been given the Word of God in the Bible. On the other hand, they remember and resent the patronizing modern Western mindset which came along with it. On the one hand, they admire the way so many Western missionaries ended up living, suffering and dying in Africa for the sake of spreading God’s Word. On the other hand, they remember the way in which those same missionaries disparaged and condemned the African’s culture and traditions. On the one hand, they are aware that Africa figures in the Bible itself, and on the other they know it was only recently that most Africans have received it.
Desmond Tutu describes the mixed feelings with this parable:
When the white man arrived we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.
Tutu makes a poignant and multi-layered observation here. On one level, the parable tells the painful story of African exploitation and domination by Westerners. The plain meaning is, “We were duped by men carrying bibles.” The second meaning, which goes deeper, is the pride modern African Christians take in their grasp of the truth of the Word of God in the Bible, despite the duplicitous way in which it was first given to them.
Ironically, when the missionaries finally made good translations of the Bible into African languages, the Bible and its message could be heard on its own terms, apart from the dominant modernism of Western missionaries. The fruit of this engagement with the Word of God in the Bible by Africans on their own terms, has been the explosive growth of African-founded churches, institutions and organizations which have merged African culture and tradition with their own readings of the biblical story. Rejecting the West’s demonization of African culture, the newly liberated African Christians followed the biblical principle of upholding all that is beautiful in a culture, and doing away only with those cultural traits which plainly distort the Gospel. The inculturation of the Bible into a truly African context was the thing that needed to happen – just as it had happened in Europe many centuries ago.
As a result of this inculturation of the Word of God, in fairly recent times, denominational differences in Africa don’t mean much. Importantly, outside of South Africa perhaps, there is not a distinctively Anglican approach to the Bible in Africa. African specialist and Episcopal priest the Rev. Dr. Grant Le Marquand tells me that “Western denominationalism doesn’t make a lot of sense in Africa. In East Africa, for example, all the various churches pretty much look the same – if you had a blindfold on you might not tell the difference.” But, he says there are some distinctives in African biblical engagement, in general.
First of all, Africans are generally critical of modern Western approaches to the Bible, including those of the 19th century evangelists who brought them the Bible. Africans identify very much with the worldview of the Bible – finding it reminiscent of their own traditional African worldviews. They believe the modern Western worldview, bereft of mystery, spirits and supernaturalism, doesn’t truly resonate with the biblical worldview. The typical African sees a universe steeped in mystery – a cosmic landscape dotted with spirits, sorcery, animal sacrifice, ancestor worship, and so on – much like the one they find described in Scripture. When Africans were freed from Western interpretations of the text, and Western disparagement of African culture, they could read the Bible themselves. And, importantly, the world Africans encountered in Scripture was closer to their own world than the world of the missionaries. “When they would encounter passages about sacrifice, tyranny, blood, suffering, spirit, healing, etc. – they could deeply grasp it as of their own worldview,” Le Marquand writes. “The African noted how closely connected that their world and the biblical world are.”
In addition to identifying more closely with the Bible’s own supernaturalist worldview, Africans also identify with the Bible’s communal vision of humanity. Africans are surprised by Western individualistic approaches to the Bible. They do not believe individuals are equal to the task of biblical interpretation. Ubuntu is the African notion that a person’s identity depends upon her relationships. Whereas the modern Western mindset seems to be, “I think therefore I am,” the ubuntu mindset is, “I am because we are.”
Finally, in addition to a worldview steeped in mystery, and a communal understanding of human identity, Africans engage with the Word of God in the Bible from within their context of suffering and pain.
With few exceptions, modern Africa is a study in pain, death, disease, war and oppression. Independence from colonial rule did not bring ‘the true law of liberty’ to Africa. As such, all African Christians read the Bible in light of brutal circumstances. It is perhaps this last distinctive which draws them so deeply into the biblical story – which is about suffering and deliverance, oppression and liberation, bondage and redemption.
The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones (“Greg”), rector of St. Michael’s Church, Raliegh, N. C., is on the board of his alma mater, the General Theological Seminary. He blogs at fatherjones.com.