Posted in African theology, reflections

Africa and the re-enchantment of the West

By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC 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 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in African theology, ecclesiology & sacraments

Strong theological education, strong church

Dr Crofford teaches a course on John Wesley's theology to students in Benin
Dr. Crofford teaches a course on John Wesley’s theology to students in Benin

Though my calling is to vocational Christian ministry, there have been transition times when I was very glad for my bank teller skills. It was honest work, and it provided for my family.

Working as a bank teller required specialized training. Tellers must know how to process deposits, withdrawals, account inquiries, loan payments, and more. Banks hire trainers who show new recruits what to do and how to do it.

Like banks, the church also recognizes the value of training. God-called pastors require certain skills. They must know what to do and how to do it. This includes the preparation and delivery of a sermon, baptizing those of all ages, serving the Lord’s Supper, making hospital visits, conducting funerals and weddings, providing pastoral counseling, and a dozen other tasks. These are vital skills for any pastor to be effective, and local churches expect that their pastor is able to perform them to an acceptable level, knowing that with time they will become more adept. In short, training is important.

Regarding business products, Simon Sinek observed:

People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.*

What is true for business is true for Christian ministry in all of its forms. It is not sufficient for a member of the clergy to know what to do and how to do it; he or she must also know why they believe what they believe. This belief, owned through long study and sometimes even spiritual anguish, will in-turn inform why they do what they do in ministry, helping them stay-the-course when difficulties mount, critics are many, and friends are few.

Are we as a church effectively addressing this more advanced aspect of purpose?

When it comes to pastors, do we recognize the need to move beyond the “what” and “how” of training to the “why” of theological education? Churches need not only pastors who are trained to perform ecclesiastical tasks. Churches desperately need pastors who love learning of all kinds, deep women and men capable of theological reflection in the midst of the task, letting that prayerful reflection modify how they practice ministry.

The dangers of only training pastors and not educating them to think critically are real. Some years ago, a conservative Christian mission agency based in the United States sent missionaries to a West African nation. The mission agency equipped local leaders to plant churches throughout the country, in big cities and small villages. Within 15 years, their members numbered nearly 50,000. Over time, the mission’s priorities shifted, so they re-assigned the missionaries to other countries, leaving leadership of the churches in the hands of one of the local leaders who had proven himself capable. One day, he came across an attractive pamphlet about Jesus Christ. He read how Jesus is not God, but the first and highest being created by God. The leader began teaching what he had read inside. The growth of the church stalled and began to decline as 1/3 of its pastors left the denomination, not wishing to be part of a group that had unwittingly begun to promote a false belief. A key leader had been trained for a task but had apparently not received adequate theological education. Consequently, he was unprepared to critically engage with a contemporary manifestation of the ancient heresy of Arianism.

"History and Faith of the Biblical Communities," at Mount Vernon Nazarene University
“History and Faith of the Biblical Communities,” at Mount Vernon Nazarene University

The “what” and “how” of training are not sufficient. Pastors must understand why they do what they do, itself a natural outgrowth of studying and determining over time why they believe what they believe. Africa is awash in a sea of quasi-Christian teaching that has at-times incorporated elements of African Traditional Religion (ATR) into its thinking, particularly in how it presents the work of “prophets” who end up serving the same function as shamans. We need more than just a handful of theologians capable of separating theological wheat from chaff. Every individual – male or female – who expresses a call to ordained ministry must be given both training and theological education. They must be taught not only the content of faith but how to reflect theologically in-light of both what Scripture says and what the church has historically understood Scripture to mean. Only then can the church stay on-course through the rough seas and high winds of false doctrine. In-turn, pastors – effectively trained and theologically educated – must equip lay leaders in the church in the “what” and “how” of ministry, all the while carefully helping them to understand the “why” of our practice and belief. Orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy (correct practice) go hand-in-hand.

The training only model, however well-intentioned, is inadequate. One of my supervisors told me soon after I took up my missionary teaching task: “Just give your students the information and make sure they give it back to you correctly on the exam. That’s all they need to do.” At the time, it seemed like good advice, but was it? An African teacher lamented: “The first missionaries came and gave us a book. We learned everything inside and began to teach it. Later, other missionaries came and gave us a second book that said different things than the first. So, we want you missionaries to tell us: Which book is correct?” Though the teacher was well-trained to do the work of a pastor, he was not able to critically reflect for himself and arrive at his own conclusions. He was helpless in the face of contradictory ideas advanced by writers of equal academic qualification. No amount of training could make up for the absence of critically reflective theological education.

Denominations that are growing and stable have understood that education – both in theology and the other academic disciplines – is not an enemy of faith but its enabler. Bertha Munro, the late long-time Dean of Eastern Nazarene College, was fond of telling her students: “There is no conflict between the best in education and the best of our Christian faith.” A tradesman teaches an apprentice what to do and how to do it. That is admirable and needed, yet education delves deeper, helping the student understand the rationale for belief and practice, no matter the field of service, creating a strong foundation on which a solid building can be erected.

Those who think that training ministers is enough may misunderstand the rationale behind theological education. For a student to construct a theology that is his or her own, sometimes he or she – under the gentle probing of a Seminary or University teacher – must set aside long-held beliefs that do not hold up under the closer scrutiny of a more careful reading of Scripture. To construct a durable and biblically faithful theology, some deconstruction often has to take place. This can be a painful, confusing time, but the student who perseveres will come away knowing not only what to do as a pastor and how to do it, but also why they believe what they do. That strong belief, hard-won through prayer and the wrestling of careful reflection, will undergird a ministry that lasts a life-time. Like a weight-lifter, muscle must be broken down before it can be built back up, stronger and more resilient in the process. When applied to Christian faith, this is the sacred task of theological education, a task that is sometimes called “constructive theology.”

Graduates of the ITN Diploma in Theology program, Bukavu, DRC
Graduates of the ITN Diploma in Theology program, Bukavu, DRC

Though theological educators walk alongside students who are coming to understand what they believe and why, the process is not without boundaries. Dr. Thomas Noble has noted that theologians are first and foremost “theologians in service to the church” (Global Nazarene Theology Conference, Guatemala, 2002). They hold in-trust the church’s doctrinal heritage, helping reproduce it in the next generation of its clergy. For this reason, teachers of Bible, theology, church history, Christian ethics and related disciplines are carefully vetted and continually responsible to both fellow educators and church leaders who offer guidance and (when necessary) censure. Well has it been said: “While orthodoxy is not a straight line, it is a fenced-in area.” At the same time, the church must give leeway and space to theological educators, allowing them the academic freedom to carry out their calling in creative ways, always adjusting their methods to fit the changing needs of changing times, yet simultaneously maintaining the underlying integrity of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3, NIV).

Now more than ever, when it comes to raising up the next generation of leaders in the church, we need both training and theological education. Our pastors must know what to do and how to do it, but let us also remember the “why.” Only when we give students space – exercising patience and trusting God the Holy Spirit to guide them as they make the Christian faith their own both in heart and mind – will we reap the long-term benefit of strong clergy equipped to lead a strong church into an uncertain future.


* Thank you to Anita Henck, for pointing me to Simon Sinek’s idea.

Posted in African theology, reflections

Fear or faith? Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Ebola virus

Mrs-O-Leary-s-Cow-Realizes-How-She-Can-End-the-Carnage-in-Chicago-s-SlaughterhousesYou’ve heard of a scapegoat. How about a scapecow?

From October 8-10, 1871, the Great Chicago fire cut a huge swath through the city, resulting in $ 192 million in damage to property, killing 300 and leaving 100,000 residents homeless. Urban legend has since blamed Mrs O’Leary’s cow, though a board of inquiry never conclusively established the fire’s cause. A popular poem nonetheless assigned blame:

One dark night, when people were in bed,

Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in her shed.

The cow kicked it over, winked his eye and said,

“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

It has been 143 years since the Great Chicago fire, but some things don’t change. We still want to assign blame. The latest example is a group of more than 100 Liberian clergy who – in a statement reported by  the Liberia Observerblamed “homosexualism, etc.” for the “plague” of Ebola. One may wonder why homosexuals – a tiny minority of citizens – were singled out by name when others in the majority only merited an “etc.”

Continue reading “Fear or faith? Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Ebola virus”

Posted in African theology

Spiritual beings in the Old Testament

Rev Chanshi Chanda
Rev Chanshi Chanda

Today’s guest is Chanshi Chanda. Reverend Chanda (M.A in Religion, Africa Nazarene University) is a long time Nazarene. Congolese by birth and formerly a pastor and Field Strategy Coordinator of the French Equatorial Field (Africa Region), he currently resides in Lusaka, Zambia. He recently launched the Institute for the Study of Human Dignity and Freedom (ISHDEF), a Think Tank and advocacy group that seeks to bring Christian theological principles to bear in the economic marketplace. He is the author of Christlike Justice and the Holiness Tradition (2010). The excerpt below is part of the Nazarene Theological Institute course, “Introduction to the Old Testament.” It is reproduced here with Rev Chanda’s permission.


The Council of Yahweh – Daniel 7.9-14 seems to present a celestial council of spiritual beings who surround God. The best description of this council appears in the vision of the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings 22.19-23 where God is surrounded by the “host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left” (v. 19, NIV). Yahweh created them, and he presides at their meetings, even if he doesn’t seek their advice (Isa. 40.13-14) like the gods of other religions. Yahweh is called the “LORD of hosts” (Isa. 47:4, NASB). Before this council, true prophets appear to hear the world of God (Jer. 23.18, 22). The number of angels or other members of God’s council is never mentioned in the Bible.

 God can send members of the council to carry out His will. They worship God, and they execute his wrath by acting as members of His celestial armies. The Old Testament gives to members of the council ranks according to their exact role: the adversary (Satan); the archangels, such as Gabriel and Michael (Dan. 8 & 10); and Job’s advocate (33.22-25), an angel who defends the accused against the charges of Satan. The primary function of angels is to worship God in His court and to announce God’s word, though they sometimes intervene to protect the lives of the faithful.

Continue reading “Spiritual beings in the Old Testament”

Posted in African theology

Third Global Nazarene Theology Conference, Johannesburg (23-27 March)

The first meeting of the Africa Nazarene Women Clergy met just prior to the GTC-3. We have some amazing female ministers in Africa!
The first meeting of the Africa Nazarene Women Clergy convened for three days prior to the GTC-3. We have some amazing female ministers in Africa!

The Third Global Nazarene Theology Conference wrapped last week, and what an AMAZING time it was!

Imagine 300 from around the denomination, all six world regions, coming together to discuss God’s direction for the Church of the Nazarene, under four headings:

– context
– Bible
– theology
– history

Like the two previous GNTCs (Guatemala – 2002, Amsterdam – 2007), most of the “heavy lifting” was done in small groups of 8-10, purposely diverse in terms of place of origin, gender, linguistic background and role in the church. The 22 regular papers and 4 summation papers (available at, written around the four mentioned themes, gave us lots to talk about, and freely share we did.

The GNTC 3 was sponsored by the International Board of Education (IBOE), and all six General Superintendents were in attendance. The official theme was:

“Critical Issues in Ecclesiology”

As one serving on the Africa Region, I was proud of our contingent from Africa, made up of both Africans and missionaries to Africa. Together, we produced 5 of the 22 regular papers presented, and served on two of the four panels.

Post-conference, in relation to the “people called Nazarenes,” here are some of the incredible blessings that linger in my mind, as well as some of the questions:

1. The diversity was holy practice for the forthcoming consummated Kingdom of God come to a new earth, aka “heaven.”

2.What will it mean to be a truly global church vs. a North American church with overseas interests?

3. We put into practice part of our Wesleyan heritage, “conference” as a means of grace. The meaning of “connection” also came up, of “dependence” vs. “interdependence” in a world where financial means vary wildly by region.

4. Have we repented of our sin of silence and indifference during apartheid? What other corporate sins have we swept under the rug that need acknowledgement and cleansing?

5. Gathering together at the Table of the Lord was a powerful moment, a reminder that “In Christ, there is no East or West, in Him no North or South.” It’s cliched, but the ground truly is level at the foot of the Cross!

6. We all acknowledge the reality of poor people and rich people (not “the poor” and the “rich,” which are impersonal, reductionistic words), but we have radically different ideas of what that reality would have us DO as a church — give to poor people, or create systems that help poor people rise, i.e. wealth creation (redemption and lift)?

7. The CoTN seems to have an unresolved tension at its heart, since its inception. Are we a “believer’s church in the Wesleyan tradition,” as Tracy and Ingersol maintain in the introduction to their book, What is a Nazarene? (i.e. a voluntary association of the saved) or are we more “catholic,” the “Body of Christ,” with an emphasis upon our “people-hood” first and (subsequently, via catechism) upon the individual salvation of those who make up that people? This strand comes from Methodism/Anglicanism, whereas the former strand came from Congregationalist groups who were part of the 1907 and 1908 merger.

Think Tank
Africa Theological Think Tank

8. We are as diverse as any group I know on the meaning and practice (or non-practice) of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I’m tempted to type “confused” in place of “diverse.” Is this an area worth contending for, or should we simply acknowledge a “big tent” approach growing out of how one answers question # 7? In Africa, the practical outworking has been that we rarely practice communion, though an unjustified “fear”or taking communion “unworthily” is another large part of that neglect. Do many Nazarene congregations around the world celebrate communion more as a memorial than a means of grace, as a “reward for the righteous” rather than a prevenient grace-filled call to all who “desire to follow Christ”? A partisan of the second position, one of the panelists, called our ritual on communion in the Manual an “abomination” and “non-Wesleyan.”

My question to you: Should we re-write that ritual, or just add a second one more consistent with a “means of grace” theology?

9. Holiness was discussed, and was alluded to in several papers. However, it seemed more like a starting assumption for discussion, more implicit that explicit.

Volume 1 of the Africa Journal of Wesleyan Theology, went on sale at the GTC-3. Topics addressed by Think Tank writers were ancestor worship, polygamy, marriage customs, homosexuality, and Christus Victor.
Volume 1 of the Africa Journal of Wesleyan Theology, went on sale at the theology conference.. Topics addressed inside by Think Tank writers were ancestor worship, polygamy, marriage customs, homosexuality, and Christus Victor.

10. Our heritage of enfranchising women in all roles of lay and ordained service was on display, with a healthy (if still too small) number of female participants. Now, if such solidarity at an official conference were only enough to break down prejudices at the local church level…

11. An accent upon the need for the Holy Spirit to act more often among us came through in multiple conversations. Deliverance ministry and divine healing had a fair hearing. I was reminded of a book title by Tony Campolo: How to be charismatic without speaking in tongues

And in-line with that final point, here’s my award for the most quotable quote:

“Our ecclesiology must be God-glorifying, Christ-centered, and Spirit-filled.”

– Dr Thomas A. Noble

May the Lord together give us a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit, leading to greater unity, renewed vision, and undying passion to keep making Christlike disciples who change the world.

Posted in African theology

Kwame Bediako reflects on Jesus as ancestor

Kwame Bediako

Kwame Bediako (1945-2008) was a Ghanian Christian theologian. With a PhD from Aberdeen, he was Director of the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre for Mission Research and Applied Theology in Ghana. In the collection edited by William Dyrness, Emerging Voices in Global Theology (Zondervan, 1994), Kwame Bediako contributed the chapter, “Jesus in African Culture: A Ghanian Perspective.” In it, Bediako addressed a variety of Christological issues as seen through eyes of Akan culture. Of special interest is the way that he developed themes in the Book of Hebrews that resonate with Akan culture, particularly the function of the ancestors. Besides our Lord’s function as sacrifice and High Priest, Bediako framed Jesus in terms of the greatest ancestor (pp. 117-118):

Jesus Christ surpasses our natural ancestors also by virtue of who he is in himself. Ancestors, even described as ‘ancestral spirits,’ nonetheless remain essential human spirits; whatever benefit they may be said to bestow upon their communities is therefore effectively contained by the fact of their being human. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, took on human nature without loss to his divine nature. Belonging in the eternal realm – as the son of the Father  (Heb. 1:1, 48; 9:14) – he has nonetheless taken human nature into himself (Heb. 10:19) and so, as God-man, he ensures and infinitely more effective ministry to human beings (Heb. 7:25) than can ever be said of merely human ancestral spirits.

It is interesting to note that for Bediako, humans having spirits that survive the demise of the body is not questioned; it is an unexamined presupposition of his worldview and that of his people. [For a comparison of the two views, dualism and holism (monism), see my The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined (Wipf and Stock, 20013), chapter 5 – “What Are We, Anyways?,” available here). Beyond the first-order question of the existence of ancestral spirits, it may be asked:

Does calling Jesus the greatest ancestor in some way subordinate the Second Person of the Trinity to the First?

While we acknowledge the reality of the Incarnation, the “Word Becoming Flesh” (John 1:14), does not the use of the word “ancestor” as applied to Christ demote Him in substance and nature to a merely human order of being? In essence, in the Akan worldview, the Chief when enthroned takes on sacred character (p. 104) as intermediary. Yet the fact that there is a moment in time when  this status is conferred upon an ancestor is problematic when Jesus is then called “ancestor.” It seems to evoke the ancient heresy of adoptionism, where the merely human Jesus of Nazareth supposedly became the Son of God at the moment of is baptism by John. In any case, Bediako wrote widely, and this is my first exposure to his writings. It is possible that he has answered this objection elsewhere, so I will keep an eye open to this concern as I dig deeper.

A critique of the “Christ our ancestor” idea offered by Rodney Reed and Gift Mtukwa of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi) may be accessed here.

Kwame Bediako believed strongly in the importance of Christology done from an African perspective. Contextualization means speaking to listeners in ways that meet them where they are. According to Bediako, this is part of the cultural adaptability that has made Christianity “culturally translatable” and the “most universal” of world religions (p. 119). As in any culture around the world, it will take wisdom from the Holy Spirit to do so in a way that remains true to Scripture and orthodoxy.


Photo credit: Dictionary of African Christian Biography

Posted in African theology, book reviews

Bishop Okorocha on the meaning of “salvation”

Rev Dr Cyril Okorocha, Anglican Bishop of Owerri (Ima State, Nigeria)
Left: Rev Dr Cyril Okorocha, Anglican Bishop of Owerri (Ima State, Nigeria)

Like people, churches have a lifespan. They will eventually die. That doesn’t make it any easier for me to see buildings that used to house vibrant Christian communities of faith turned into houses or bookstores.

Yet the Gloria Gaither “Church Triumphant” lyric aptly states, “God always has a people.” In these days of declining church attendance in North America and Great Britain, it’s easy to lose sight of Gaither’s profound insight, that the “Church triumphant is alive and well.”

Exhibit A of that “aliveness” and “wellness” is Nigeria. In a West African nation brimming with the vitality of youth amidst a population of nearly 170 million, there are enough brands of Christianity to make your head spin. Many are independent churches, mixing up a strange brew of African Traditional Religion (ATR) and imported prosperity messages. Yet even long established Christian groupings – such as Anglicanism – are thriving.

An Anglican, Rev Dr Cyril Okorocha is the Bishop of Owerri in Imo State, Nigeria, and holds a PhD in missiology from the University of Aberdeen. Below is my review of an important chapter he contributed to a collection.


emergingvoicesSome words I’ve always taken for granted. They seemed to need no definition. Salvation was one of them. For one brought up in the North American evangelical milieu, “salvation” for me as a child meant “going to heaven when I die” or “asking Jesus into my heart.” There were “wordless” books or Roman Roads, the “Four Spiritual Laws” or other “evangelism plans” that if followed meant that my “name is written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Or, to use the vernacular, “I’m saved!”

The more I study, the more I realize that – while an encounter with Jesus Christ is still vital – Scripture talks about salvation in a much broader sense. But what Cyril Okorocha does in his chapter entitled “The Meaning of Salvation: An African Perspective” (in William A. Dyrness, ed., Emerging Voices in Global Theology [Zondervan, 1998]) is to pull back the curtain on the worldview of the Igbo, a large people group in southern Nigeria. Specifically, he teases out how the Igbo understand the word “salvation.” In short, salvation is intertwined with well being (Ezi Ndu) in the here-and-now, which explains in-part the popularity of prosperity teachers in Nigeria. Okorocha observes (p. 83):

African primal peoples have no disinterested love for their gods. Worship is given only in return for protection and life-enhancing benefits. This pragmatic and almost utilitarian attitude to religion is the key to Igbo conversion to Christianity. But it is also the explanation for the rise of new religious movements, including the African Independent Churches.

A strength of the chapter is its presentation of prayers traditionally offered by Igbo who are not Christian. Besides prayers for health and well-being, there are prayers for peaceful community, prayers that accompany sacrifices to appease the spirits, and prayers for women to bear many children: “Marriage is primarily for, and in order, to have children. When a marriage fails to provide children, traditional steps are taken to rectify the situation” (p. 84).

In Western settings, “sin” is usually conceived individualistically. When Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23), the individual is taught to think of this as “I have sinned.” Arguably, perhaps due to the influence of the Puritans in early American life, many Americans think of “major offenses” in terms of sexual sins. (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter is the epitome of this approach). But for the Igbo, “sin” is considered “any conduct or occurrence which may incur the wrath of the gods and therefore lead to the vitiation of life” (p. 87). Further, sin is dealt with communally. In a passage reminiscent of the Old Testament practice of Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16.8-10), Okorocha (pp. 86-87) tells of the Yoruba practice of the télé (osu):

The télé is the Yoruba osu, or ‘human (usually male) scapegoat’: The people symbolically bind their sins on him on the day of the final ritual cleansing and warding off (after the cleansing sacrifice of the animal has been offered). The sins are tied on the back of the télé in the form of a heavy load (made up of all kinds of rubbish, often including human waste) which he bears to the sacred grove, the evil forest. The people throw the télé into the forest and chant: Take sins away! Take misfortunes away! Take disease away! Take death away!

Bishop Okorocha does a good job of describing the Igbo worldview but is less effective when offering a critique. While he speaks of the “anthropocentrism” (human centeredness) of African religion, unfortunately, he prescribes nothing to remedy the situation. (Such a remedy would certainly be helpful in North America, too). Instead, he lays out the importance of “power” without exposing the dangers of an outsized emphasis upon this one aspect of Christian faith. After all, can a Christian ethic be built upon “power” alone? As a missionary educator living in Benin (Nigeria’s smaller neighbor to the West), I encouraged our pastors to avoid speaking of power in isolation of other qualifying terms. Instead, our message should be the “power of a holy life.”  In this way, we can make sure that two elements often presented in tandem in the New Testament stay coupled.

This criticism aside, Cyril Okorocha does an admirable job of acquainting the reader with how many Africans view salvation, a vital topic not only to Christianity in general but to Wesleyanism particularly. I look forward to reading other writings by the Anglican Bishop.


Photo credits:

1) Bishop Okorocha: Christian Voice News Online

2) Emerging Global Voices: Barnes and Noble

Posted in African theology, book reviews, The Wesleys and Wesleyan theology

South African Tony Balcom on “faith in the boiling pot”

emergingvoicesIn 2014, I am committed to plunge into the massive literature on African theology, or what I prefer to call “Christian theology written by Africans.” After all, we don’t usually speak of “European theology,” “Australian theology,” or “North American theology,” so why should we insist on the term “African theology”? By speaking of Christian theology, it is an acknowledgment that the broad, Scriptural themes that unite us – wherever on this planet we happen to have been born and raised – are the priority.  On the other hand, speaking of “Christian theology written by Africans” admits that each of us unwittingly brings cultural “glasses” to the reading of Scripture that cannot be removed. These glasses affect the way we go about building our theology, including the choice of which themes from Holy Writ to emphasize and which to soft-pedal or even (unconsciously) which we ignore. Teaching only theology developed in Western settings means neglecting themes that are dear to the heart of Africans while emphasizing some that for them may hold less interest.

To begin this plunge, I took down from the shelf a book that – to my embarrassment – has sat unread for years, even if it has traveled with me as I’ve made my home and served as a missionary in Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Haiti, Kenya, and now South Africa. William Dyrness helped edit Emerging Voices in Global Christian Theology (Zondervan, 1994). The compendium contains three essays penned by Christian theologians from Africa, as follows:

Anthony Balcom, “South Africa: Terrifying Stories of Faith from the Political Boiling Pot of the World”

Cyril Okorocha, “The Meaning of Salvation: An African Perspective”

Kwame Bediako, “Jesus in African Culture: A Ghanaian Perspective”

Today, we will look at the first.

Tony Balcom was born in South Africa but raised in Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His essay was published the same year when South Africa elected Nelson Mandela as President. This means that Balcom would have been writing some time in 1993, when many South Africans feared that their country was teetering on the brink of civil war. In this context of seemingly intractable mistrust between citizens of differing backgrounds, Balcom poignantly observed (pp. 47-48):

For almost four centuries in South Africa, we fought and killed each other. When we tired of this we shouted abuse at each other across great divides of race, culture, and ethnicity. When we tired of this we slammed the door on each other, each pretending the other was not there, each hoping the other would go away. But when we squatted at the keyhole and squinted through to the other side, we saw each other there, as large as life, waiting. And we knew that one day we would have to do it. One day we would have to talk…it is the conversation of those who have begrudgingly come to realize that conversation is the only way out, because those who do not talk, fight. It is therefore conversation steeped in suspicion, resentment, fear, and hate. But it is nevertheless conversation.

Balcom tells three stories to illustrate his contention: “Not a single issue of life can escape the fact of our faith. Our faith demands of us that we ask the questions to do with our lives” (p. 47). The best story is that of Nonqawuse. A prophetess from the Xhosa people group, in 1856, she revealed that the ancestors had spoken to her and had instructed that all the cattle must be slaughtered. Once they were dead, not only the cattle but all the ancestors would come back to life in spontaneous resurrection, chasing away the white oppressors (p. 50). The paramount chief of the Xhosa, Sarhili, accepted the prophecy, and he ordered the slaughter, believing – according to the prophecy – that the resurrection would happen on 11 August 1856. The date came and went, with no resurrection. Balcom concludes: “The Xhosa people were effectively decimated” (p. 50).

The story of Nonqawuse is a tragic narrative that makes one appreciate the desperate lengths that the oppressed will go to in search of liberation. Further, it encourages today’s messengers of the Gospel to make sure that we are preaching Good News. This Good News is of a Christ who not only liberates us from our sins. More than that, regardless of our cultural heritage – in the words of our Nazarene communion ritual – Christ unites us as believers who are “one, at one table with the Lord.” Barriers of ethnicity must crumble around the Table.

It has been 19 years since Tony Balcom’s essay. Just over one month ago, former President Nelson Mandela passed away, heralded by one and all in the country as a Great Uniter. Debate continues regarding whether Madiba was a follower of Christ. Certainly God knows the heart, and we rest in that truth. However one answers the question, one thing is certain: Of all peoples, Christians should be at the forefront of promoting harmony among peoples of all backgrounds. This is the primary take-away from Balcom’s chapter, a timeless lesson in a troubled and divided world.


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