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

Advertisements

Baggage surrounding the word “holiness”

suitcaseYou know a word has issues when you have to start qualifying it. Why does someone say they are a “born-again Christian”?  Shouldn’t “Christian” be enough? (Read more on that here.)

Similarly, Ken Abraham published a book in 1988 entitled Positive Holiness. But I wonder: For those in the holiness tradition, shouldn’t the unadorned word “holiness” be enough? Abraham added the qualifier “positive” because he admitted what we rarely do:

The word “holiness” has baggage.

Like at the airport, baggage comes in different shapes and sizes. Here are two kinds of baggage:

1. Legalistic holiness – This was nearly extinct but is seeing a resurgence in response to shifting mores in society. It is the judgmental, Pharisaical approach to religion with an emphasis upon rules and outward appearance. Here, holiness is defined by what we abstain from: “A good ______________ (fill in denominational affiliation) does not _____________.”

This can be trickier than it looks. No one is denying the moral content of Christian faith. Jesus affirmed the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:16-21) which contain numerous negative commands, i.e. “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” etc. But the problem with legalistic holiness is that it never gets around to the positive side of the equation, the Great Commandment of Christ to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34), itself a re-affirmation of Old Testament teaching (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:8). Rules devoid of love dry up the spirit.

2. Magical holiness  – Besides legalistic holiness, a second type of baggage is more subtle. I call it “magical holiness.” This well-meaning error is usually accompanied by calls to “revival,” to get back to a time when we really knew how to preach holiness! And so we plaster the word on our brochures and banners, and call holiness the “great hope.”

Yet hope in the New Testament is seldom attached to a religious experience, no matter how powerful that experience may be. Rather, our hope is Jesus!  Galatians 5:5 speaks of our hope to be made righteous, but Colossians 1:27 exemplifies the more usual pattern, where it is “Christ in us” that is our “hope of glory” (NIV). 1 Thessalonians 1:3 affirms the believers for their “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (CEB). Likewise, Peter extols the “living hope” into which we have been born, a living hope made possible through the resurrection of Christ (1 Peter 1:3, NIV).

A comparison helps. When studying spiritual gifts, sometimes we speak of the importance of “seeking the Giver more than the gifts.” That’s good advice, and keeps us from overemphasizing spectacular manifestations. However, we forget that counsel when it comes to holiness theology. We urge our people to seek “entire sanctification.” But I wonder: Isn’t that seeking the gift rather than the Giver? And when we seek gifts first and foremost, we become like Simon the Magician, wanting the power without the relationship from which the power flows. (See Acts 8:9-24).

But you say: Did not Jesus call us to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)? Indeed, he did, yet that day on a hillside in Galilee, the people focused their attention on Jesus. They came to get to know this teacher better. They carefully listened to him, understanding intuitively that Jesus is the source of all righteousness. The order is important. If we desire holiness, seek first the Holy One.

Once we have sought Jesus for himself and not for what he can do in our lives, then we blossom into a growing, dynamic relationship with God. Later, in God’s timing, will God not transform us at a deeper level into the image of Christ? Paul affirms this clearly in Romans 8:31-32:

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? (CEB)

Seek the sanctifying experience only, and you make Jesus your magician. Seek Jesus for himself, and you can’t help but be transformed at every level of your being.

Jesus, the Holy One, is our hope! May we preach a positive Christ, one who fills us with love for God and others. And may we always remember: We serve Jesus not for what he can do for us, though he does much. Rather, we serve Jesus because he is enough.

————————————————

Photo credit: Pinstripes and Pearls