Africa Engaging Traditional Religion And Culture

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Early missionaries tended to regard traditional African religions as evil, primitive, and superstitious, and they extended this negative attitude toward African culture as a whole. The Ghanaian writer Kwame Bediako points out that African Christians were thus often put in the intolerable position of being obliged to turn their backs on their own traditions and culture and rely on an imported European heritage.8 This served to reinforce the perception that Christianity was culturally alien to Africa—a perception that was particularly acute in the case of Anglicanism, which retained many outward manifestations of its English origins (for example, the virtually universal use of the Book of Common Prayer until the Second World War). Catholic missionaries, often armed with a "natural theology" that encouraged them to find and value "points of contact" between the gospel and African culture, were rather more positive about cultural engagement. Protestants, often inculcated against "primitive superstition" by the culture of the Enlightenment rather than by Christianity itself, were much more censorious.9

The outcome was predictable. Africans who converted to Protestantism read the Bible through African eyes, not through the modernist prism of Western missionaries.10 African Protestants saw little difficulty in reading parts of the Bible in a literalist way, and so they alarmed the enlightened missionaries by taking literally gospel commands such as to heal and cast out demons. This was not to be seen as a "primitive" way of reading the Bible, but a rejection of the habits of interpretation that had emerged in the West as a result of the Enlightenment's rationalist worldview, which held that "demons" and "spirits" were irrational beliefs. African converts had no difficulty in accepting their reality, and they relished the gospel's direct engagement with these core elements of their worldview. As Elizabeth Isichei comments in her masterly history of Christianity in Africa, such converts found in the world of the Bible, a world of victory over sickness and death, of mastery over evil spirits The emphasis on healing and miracles was not wholly absent from the mission churches, but, typically, they interpreted disease in a rationalist-scientific way, and relied more on hospitals than prayer to solve health problems.11

More significantly, African converts to the historical Protestant mission churches held that many traditional African practices—such as polygamy—should be regarded as permissible under the gospel.

The outcome of these tensions was the formation of a wide range of African Initiated Churches (AlCs), which are virtually entirely Protestant.12 African Protestants knew enough about the history of their movement to draw the conclusion that it was perfectly legitimate to break away from parent denominations when these were seen to fail or fall short at critical points. AICs are strongest and most numerous in southern Africa, west Africa, the Congo Basin, and central Kenya. Three major categories of AICs can be identified.13

"Ethiopian" and "African" Churches

AICs that do not claim to be prophetic or to offer special manifestations of the Holy Spirit have been referred to as "Ethiopian" or "Ethiopian-type" churches in southern Africa and as "African" churches in Nigeria.

Generally earlier in origin than the other two types, these churches arose primarily as a political and administrative reaction to European mission-founded churches. For this reason, Ethiopian or African churches are very similar to the historical Protestant churches from which they emerged. For example, they usually practice infant baptism, read set liturgies, wear European clerical vestments (often black), and use forms of worship that are less enthusiastic or emotional than the forms of worship in other AlCs.

"Prophet-Healing" and "Spiritual" Churches

"Prophet-healing" or "spiritual" churches are AICs that have historical and theological roots in the Pentecostalist movement and emphasize the working of the power of the Spirit in the church. This is the largest grouping of AICs, and it includes a wide variety of some of the biggest churches in Africa. It includes the Kimbanguist movement and the African Apostolic church in central Africa, the Aladura and Harrist churches in west Africa, and the Zion Christian church and the Amanazaretha in southern Africa. The theology of these churches tends to be more precisely formulated than in European mission-founded churches, and the differences in belief systems, liturgy, and prophetic healing practices are often considerable. The most obvious distinguishing feature of these churches throughout most of Africa is the almost universal use of uniforms for members, often white robes with bright sashes.

"New Pentecostal" Churches

"New Pentecostal" churches, which are of more recent origin (mostly after 1980), also emphasize the power and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Probably the fastest-growing expression of Christianity in Africa today, these churches burst onto the African religious scene about 1975, and their explosive growth since then has challenged many previously accepted assumptions about the character of African Protestantism. The difference between these churches—examples of which are the Deeper Life Church in Nigeria, the Zimbabwe Assemblies of God African, and Grace Bible Church in South Africa—and those of Western Pen tecostal origin has mainly to do with their form of church government. Leadership in the new churches is entirely black and essentially local and autonomous, with no organizational links with Pentecostal denominations outside Africa.

The surge of spiritual and intellectual energy now animating African Protestantism can be seen from one of the most significant publications of the opening years of the twenty-first century. The Africa Bible Commentary (2006) is a 1,600-page commentary on the entire text of the Bible, with the African horizon in mind.14 Western academic questions and agendas are gently set to one side in order to allow the text to address and engage the living issues of Africa, here and now—such as HIV/AIDS, demons and exorcisms, funeral and burial rites, the care of widows and orphans, and responses to persecution. A French edition is scheduled for release in 2007, with editions in Amharic, Portuguese, and other regional languages to follow.

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