Rev David Shosanya looks at the tensions between Christianity, modern culture and African traditions, and calls on believers to uphold their Christian beliefs, despite societal pressure to change them
Historically, Christianity has been viewed by many Africans as a White man’s religion. Perhaps this sentiment was most clearly captured and communicated in the novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’, widely recognised as the seminal and perhaps most influential work of the late great African writer, Professor Chinua Achebe, the ‘Father of African Literature’. In ‘Things Fall Apart’, set in pre-colonial Africa in the 1890s, Professor Achebe narrates the fictional story of a local hero named Onkonko; the arrival of Christianity to his little village in Nigeria, and the community’s reaction to Western missionaries.
There is much about the richness of pre-colonial African culture that can be learnt and celebrated through this work of literary genius. As I cast my mind back a number of years ago to when I first read the book, I remember feeling a deep sense of cultural pride, a feeling that I shamefully have to admit I had only experienced a few times prior, as a result of the negative and stereotypical misrepresentations and distortions of the African continent and of Africans. Through his masterly command of the English language and his fertile imagination, Professor Achebe skilfully and powerfully introduced and exposed me to the raw beauty, richness, texture and sophistication of longstanding historical African cultural traditions and customs. Sadly, they had largely evaded my consciousness as a result of being born in the West.
The novel further serves to offer an insight into the spirited fight put up by Africans to retain the treasures and values of their cultural heritage, which was directly under threat as a result of embracing the forms of Christianity that some missionaries sought to superimpose upon Africans who responded to the Gospel and chose to follow Christ. Part of that struggle meant that, while African individuals and communities accepted the call to follow Christ, some continued to retain an allegiance to traditional beliefs.
While retaining an allegiance to traditional African religions post-conversion is not acceptable, it is possible to see how it was an initial attempt to hold on to aspects of African culture that some missionaries sought to eradicate through their demands for converts to change their name and to dress like Europeans. In other words, we see at the very genesis of African expressions of Christianity a culture of ‘resistance’ that has been present ever since.
It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the contemporary expressions of African Christianity and spirituality seen on the continent and beyond find their roots in this culture of resistance, and that it is this culture that makes African Christianity, Christians and spirituality as resilient as it is to external narratives that seek to define and reshape it. This is an important lesson that African Christians, who have migrated to the UK and beyond, need to constantly hold in the forefront of their minds. The very real danger is that, having arrived in the UK and discovered that individuals are often judged by the colour of their skin or the thickness of their accent, African Christians may consciously or unconsciously embark on a journey of seeking acceptance from the dominant cultural group and, in the process, lose or compromise on the convictions that have sustained them up until that point.
One particular arena, where this sense of acceptance may be sought, relates to how we understand Scripture and negotiate the traditional teachings of the Church in the light of the very real pressures from contemporary society. Many current cultural discourses are directly and indirectly challenging the Church to rethink historical, biblical and theological standpoints, in order to be aligned with what is often referred to as ‘civilised’ or ‘progressive’ thinking. African Christians must resist the pressure to be coerced into adopting positions that do not resonate with them culturally or theologically, insofar as those convictions are consistent with the revelation of Scripture.
Clearly, there is no doubt that it is important for Christians from the Global South to wrestle with various issues that emerge in the context of post-modern Western culture; this is imperative, if they are to be effective in evangelism and social action within the communities they are seeking to reach as God’s agents of transformation. However, a willingness to engage in debate does not and should not mean the readiness to jettison longstanding traditions of the Church, in order to have the status of ‘civilised’ or ‘progressive’ conferred by those whose views differ from their own.
The truth is that even the most ardent and vociferous advocate for the West would find it difficult to argue, with any real sense of conviction and integrity, that the radical shifts in the belief that has characterised the culture have not left it weaker than it once was. Some may even find it harder to believe that perhaps it is Africans and others from the Global South, whom God might be bringing to the UK to restore what has been lost.
But that, in fact, may be the case, so please hold fast to the courage of your convictions, my African sisters and brothers!
Rev David Shosanya is a Regional Minister & Director with the London Baptist Association