Africa and the re-enchantment of the West

By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Merlin the magician
Vampires, wizards, witches, zombies – enchantment pervades the NetFlix movies we stream, the television programs we watch, and the books that sell by the millions. Science may be taught in our classrooms – the “Star Trek” franchise still has a following, after all – but it’s the paranormal and the supernatural that are all the rage. In North America and Europe at the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, we’re seeing what may be termed the re-enchantment of the West.

As a missionary serving in Africa, I find this phenomenon fascinating since Africa arguably has never been de-enchanted, nearly a century of colonial rule and decades of post-colonial Western influence notwithstanding. Teaching a class of pastors in Benin some years ago, one told the story of seeing a mob with sticks chasing a stray dog. They beat it while the animal tried to escape. Finally, the bleeding dog fell to the ground under the pummeling of the crowd, then before their eyes changed into a young man, complete with bleeding wounds on his body. The pastor wanted to know: What does Christian theology have to say about that?

Recently I ordered a textbook for a theology course at the unversity where I teach. The book was published recently in the West, by Western scholars. Though the book has much to commend it, my Kenyan students will look in vain to find any framework by which to respond to the question the West African pastor asked me, yet Benin and Kenya are close in outlook. In January 2016, a story was reported in multiple news outlets that breathes the same enchanted worldview. Purportedly, a Kenyan man had his motorcycle stolen. To find out who had taken it, and to get it back, he went to the witchdoctor, who allegedly sent a swarm of bees. The bees split into two groups, one enveloping the missing motorcycle, the other attacking the supposed thief. As reported in one French language edition of the story, people sent for the witchdoctor, who then made the bees leave. One Kenyan official gave an alternative explanation, reporting that a queen bee had become lodged in the handlebars, which explains the swarming of the rest of the hive. It was one event but explained through two very different pairs of spectacles.

The re-enchantment of the West and the ongoing enchantment of sub-Saharan Africa raise several questions in my mind:

  1. What place does science education have in curriculum of public and private schools? Is its purpose de-enchantment?
  2. Does an acknowledgment of cause/effect in the universe as explained by science necessarily exclude supplementary explanations of other agents such as witchdoctors, or – to use the Western paradigm – witches, warlocks, or wizards?
  3. Must Christian theology in a postmodern world rediscover categories that appear in older systematic theologies, including the discussion of angels and demons? Are there any other voids in our teaching that encourage African Christians to seek explanations – and sometime, solutions to their everyday problems, like stolen bikes – in sub-Christian ways, by means other than addressing their needs to God in prayer?
  4. Western views of magic as portrayed in fiction suggest both benevolent and malevolent forms, so-called “good witches” or “good wizards.” Can we mentally compartmentalize this as harmless fantasy – merely the entertaining product of a healthy imagination – or are we unwittingly encouraging dabbling with very real malevolent forces, to our own spiritual harm?
  5. How do we adress issues around magic while avoiding sowing fear, keeping our eyes firmly on the truth that Christ has vanquished evil in all of its forms? In desiring to be relevant, is it possible that we’ll end up making the devil and his minions larger and more powerful than they are? We must not inflate the power of the demonic by giving it undue attention, detracting from the surpassing greatness and power of the Triune God, a God who is never far away but present and active in our world.

These are areas that are ripe for theologizing based upon solid exegesis of biblical material. Having been trained in a Western setting, I did not have eyes to see Scripture in-light of the kind of question that the Beninese pastor asked me. After twenty years in Africa, I’m more sensitive to such questions. However, they are better dealt with by local African theologians who can marry scientific explanations (where applicable) to the more supernaturalistic worldview that they know so well and that is apparent in Scripture.

In light of the re-enchantment of the West, we are witnessing a golden opportunity for Western and African Christian theologians to put their heads together to provide biblical answers to practical questions but from a holistic worldview. Let us not be satisfied to let vacuums in our thinking persist. Answers that honor God are there if we are willing to seek them. We owe the church and our world nothing less.


Photo credit: By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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3 thoughts on “Africa and the re-enchantment of the West

  1. The gap between watching a TV show with supernatural elements and believing those things are real is very large. Magic pervades entertainment because, like science-fiction, it affords storytellers a lot of control. I am wary of attributing events to magic, good or bad, because it encourages people to act decisively on their ignorance (i.e. “burning the witch”).

  2. There is a very big difference between watching a TV show with supernatural themes and believing in magic. We should be wary of encouraging belief in magic because such belief encourages people to believe other things that are unproven and may lead them to precipitate action based on their ignorance (i.e. “burning the witch”).

  3. Really appreciate this insightful and very helpful post, Dr Crofford! NTS (KC) annually offers a course on understanding indigenous beliefs and practices that addresses some of these areas, and includes readings from outside the West (including Prof. Gift Mtukwa). Any insights and resources you would care to suggest would really be appreciated! ~Bill Selvidge

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