Our disfigured image

9 09 2010

The reassuring myth amongst Western Christians is that our historical legacy will be continued on in Africa and other places where we once carried the white man’s burden. Even if our religion is proving to be a spectacular failure in many places on the “home front”, the fact that it is prospering elsewhere signifies that we were right all along. Though bittersweet, the increase in numbers in the Church in places like Africa seems like a vindication of those ideologies that once governed our society. Perhaps, we think, they will come again to evangelize us. In many places, it already seems to be happening.

Far be it from me to rain on other people’s parade, but in the contemporary Christian consciousness, the Church in Africa seems to be the church over there. It is the Other par excellence. It doesn’t really matter how they are really like, since their denominations carry the same names, and they are under the same ecclesiastical authority. One should just assume that they are just like us, even if a little backward. The fact is that they are a new church, and are experiencing some “growing pains”, but soon they will shake off all of those evil superstitions and become the legion of traditional conservative Christians that we could never be. Or so we hope.

Apuleius Platonicus, on his blog Egregores, has a rather fascinating section on the interaction between Christianity and traditional African religions. One quote that summarizes some people’s attitude towards Christianity is the following:

Well, you know, the churches are so powerful in Nigeria. These men all have private jets. They live like monarchs. They are all kings as well, in the name of God. They have kicked out the Catholics. Not kicked them out. The Catholics are still there. But these Pentecostal pastors, they have stolen all of their customers. I don’t call them a congregation. They are all “customers,” because they are paying money to these men. God. You know, God can do everything: heal the sick and move mountains. But he just can’t make money. Incredible. This guy gets by. But the main thing about Africa is that most people are in poverty. When you are poor, you are easily influenced. Everybody that is poor only wants to come up. And most of these pastors are also painting pictures of, “Okay, I was poor before the Lord came into my life. I live my life righteously and look at me today.” The part of it that he is leaving out of the story is, “Look at me today. I am just here telling you all of this while you are putting your money in my pocket. And I am getting rich.” So, Africans are religious. Most people actually don’t relate to Fela in Africa because he is not a Christian or a Muslim. And he is telling them that this is wrong.

In other words, the American prosperity gospel without much addition or subtraction. Granted, the blogger is a militant pagan, but what he cites from third party sources makes a lot of sense. This doesn’t even mention the widespread rejection of celibacy amongst the Catholic clergy, or the inevitable tribal warfare between Christians and non-Christians. While counter-intuitive, the blogger’s point that Christianity doesn’t ameliorate superstition, but rather makes it worse, is something worth contemplating.

This is especially the case with the phenomenon of “witch children”. As in all traditional societies, the problem of witchcraft is seen as an uncontrolled social ill. In Africa, and amongst Christians in particular, children are often seen as the perpetrators of witchcraft. As one Save the Children report states:

In many countries witchcraft accusations are exploited by revivalist, charismatic or Pentecostal churches. Their pastor‐prophets fight against witchcraft in the name of God, identifying witches through visions and dreams, and then offering treatment – divine healing and exorcism – to the supposed witches. This “spiritual” work, often of a violent nature, reinforces beliefs in witchcraft and increases accusations. “The more God’s servants fight against witchcraft, the more they get involved in treating witches, and at the end of the day, the more they extend the resources of witchcraft” (Tonda, 2002) as well as their own income. The persecution of witches has become a lucrative “business” for many pastor‐prophets. The actions of the pastor‐prophets “complement” those of traditional healers who also fight against the malevolent forces of witchcraft by detecting supposed witches.

The nature of the “exorcism” of child witches can be quite brutal, as described in another report:

Many accused children are brought before pastors, cult leaders, or self-proclaimed “prophets” and forced to undergo often lengthy “deliverance” ceremonies in an attempt to rid them of “possession.” Deliverance ceremonies can take place in “churches of revival” (églises de réveil) found throughout Kinshasa and Mbuji-Mayi and rapidly spreading to other cities. The growth in the number of new churches of revival is both a consequence of child sorcery accusations and a cause of new allegations; more than 2,000 churches practice deliverance in Kinshasa alone. Some prophets who run these churches have gained celebrity-like status, drawing in hundreds of worshipers in lucrative Sunday services because of their famed “success” in child exorcism ceremonies. This popularity rewards them for their often brutal treatment of children. Children who undergo deliverance rituals are sequestered inside churches anywhere from a few hours to several days or weeks. Many are denied food and water to encourage them to confess to practicing witchcraft. In the worst cases, children are beaten, whipped, or given purgatives, to coerce a confession. One twelve-year-old street boy in Kinshasa, held in a church with dozens of other children, said, “We were not allowed to eat or drink for three days. On the fourth day, the prophet held our hands over a candle, to get us to confess. So, I accepted the accusations and the abuse ended. Those who did not accept were threatened with a whip.” After the ceremonies, children who do not confess are often sent away from their homes. Even children who do confess may be subjected to future abuse and abandonment.

Far from being a force against superstition and for tolerance, the dark side of Christian orthodoxy is that of violent persecution. This was the case during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, when witch hunts and the Inquisition were most active. Mass religious violence is often not the result of “ignorance” taken by itself, but knowledge that degenerates into fundamentalism. In many parts of Christian Africa, it seems that such persecution is being repeated.

The other unspoken element of traditional African religion is the prevalence of syncretism amongst many African Christians. Far from being a sign of “underdevelopment” or lack of catechesis amongst the neophytes, these mixed practices often reflect the reality of people’s lives on the ground. As one report describes about one Tanzanian Christian:

One of the Swahili language teachers, a man in his mid-thirties, stated that my assertions were true. Then to everyone’s surprise, he stated that after returning to his home village the previous year for the first time after being in the capital city for more than ten years, he and his relatives sacrificed a goat to the ancestral spirits. Why did the young man admit this and feel that, even though he was a Christian, it was necessary to make such a sacrifice?

As in all of the other cases, the answer is pretty clear cut. White Christians planted their religion in Africa expecting to import as well the entire social and economic order of Europe. When this didn’t pan out, the religion was left, but the other institutions were left in shambles. Here then we see more implications of what Leon Trotsky would call, “combined and uneven development”. Christianity could thus be considered as a means to mimic the prosperity of the West (as in the jet-setting Pentecostal preachers), or of reinforcing superstition (as in the persecution of child witches), or as one’s official religion as a respectable citizen of society, all the while participating in the traditional cults. In none of these cases could it directly reflect the role that religion played in traditional Christendom. It is no surprise that with a lack of European cultural context, Christianity would come to play an entirely different role in society. In some ways it is reflective of what happened in Europe, in some ways it is grotesquely the opposite. But to think that they are somehow “carrying the torch” of European Christianity is tendentious as best.

Thus there is no reason to expect Christianity in Africa to produce Southern Hemisphere neo-cons who read First Things and have impeccable front lawns. If anything, the cultural right and the left-wing intelligentsia misread the growth of the faith there for their own ideological purposes. What may be occurring instead is the growth of what our blogger would call a “Frankenstein religion” at least from our point of view. From the point of view of traditional religion, it may just be business as usual, if only with the level of violence and greed ramped up using the tools of modern technocracy.



21 responses

15 09 2010
Establishment: Orthodox and Inclusive | Cogito, Credo, Petam

[…] trophy wife!), I have misgivings about what the Charismatic churches, once freed from persecution, tend to become. Here’s a video that CHC made some months before coming under government […]

13 09 2010

sorto’ – you read too much subtext into my comment. Also, I do not imply any sort of hierarchy of heresies etc. You’ll also notice I used the word “respectable” in ” “. This implies some cynicism to the common use of the word in that context. Furthermore, regarding your last point, there is a major difference between “add-on” superstition, and core heresy, for instance heresies that deny the nature of the Trinity etc.

11 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I find the classification of “developing” vs. “developed” to be very useful, in that it explains how “combined and uneven development” can often determine the shape of the ideological superstructure. The only danger is that one cannot reify artificial distinctions based on idealized categories. Sometimes, a certain region or social group has more in common with another half way around the world than it does with other entities in its own country. But if you throw out such socio-economic categories altogether, you are basically stuck in trying to explain the continuance of traditional healing practices, new versions of the cargo cult, and the emergence of heterodox figures of veneration (Santa Muerte, la corte malandra, etc.) Such activity is usually the result of massive societal upheaval that, in spite of our current situation, we do not share. When various modern and pre-modern modes of production continue to exist within a given region, it is only right to call them developing, and it shouldn’t be considered an epithet. In places where late capitalism has essentially spread pretty much everywhere in the social order, we can call that developed, but that is not necessarily a compliment.

10 09 2010

Louis: In general, though, I find the tone of those who speak of the Global South, or Africa etc etc, extremely condescending, much as a wealthy upper class Ivy league man / women would speak about their beloved pets.

Quite true. I am quite guilty of employing a dubious dichotomy of “developed” and “developing”. This dichotomy, while convenient, can (and often is) used in a demeaning or even racist manner. It is better to name the location of ecclesial change rather than lump everything into a facile contrast. I will not cease reference to the colonial/post-colonial dichotomy as many in our culture still view African Christianity through this contrast.

Still, you employ unnecessary and daresay even prejudiced contrasts.

There is an older tradition of synchretistic religion in Southern Africa, with it’s main focus being the ZCC, or Zion Christian Church. However, some have found that gentle “nudging” if you wish have brought some of these people closer to an orthodox understanding of the faith. Yet, anomalies, like other posters above noted, are still common, and one should remember that that is probably not all that different from what happened in Europe, when the faith spread there. You really think all those Vikings became “respectable folk” over night??

I must wonder what “respectability” has to do with your “orthodoxy”. Is orthodox Christianity (i.e. the missioner’s Christianity) always superior to the African post-colonial reinterpretation of Christianity? Are African Christians that derive new beliefs and rituals at odds with missionary interpretations uncouth because they have wandered from colonial belief and ritual archetypes?

Perhaps according to an extremely idealistic and dualistic Catholic narrative, the “Danes” earned respectability after they ceased burying their dead with both crucifixes and Thor amulets. I would argue that the Scandinavians were Christianized precisely because the Vikings were respectable. Their invasions of Britain and Ireland, though perilous to the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic monks, profoundly shaped the topographical, demographic, and cultural makeup of these islands. There is no demarcation point between the Vikings as pagans and Vikings as Christian. Rather, the Scandinavian movement through medieval Christianity and Lutheranism began with half-steps through more Christianized cultures such as Anglo-Saxon England. Would you dare say that the post-colonial African Christian experience must progress through a sharp theological divide that has not been retrospectively applied to similar “Western” or European historical situations?

The sad thing also is that this so-called spread of Christianity in the “global South” is accompanied by age-old heresies, that has nothing to do with tribal religion.

Is there a value hierarchy between “tribal religion” and “age-old heresies”? One would be hard pressed to couch age-old heresies as somehow superior or less foreign to tribal religion. Like the Danes and their indiscriminate use of burial amulets and crucifixes, the African Christian experience is respectable because it has detached itself from the heterodox/orthodox expectations of its missionary birth and is changing the world as an independent theology and ecclesiology.

10 09 2010

Ok: I came from that environment. Though white, I attended a church dominated by black people, very often of very recent primitve tribal extraction. The Church was a pelagian sect, with some Zulu culutral imports – and those imports whre almost all of the kind that people could turn into legalisms. in the end, it represented somehting like an American Independant Fundamentalist Baptist – tpye religion. It was strongly opposed to Penetoctalism, yet had many elements of the same. These things contrast sharply with the Churches my parents worked in as missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church in Zambia. There, heterodoxy was much less present (insofar as Calvinism is not heterodox, but just stay with me).

The things which really, really upset the apple cart was the rise of Revivalism, especially of the Pentecostal varieties. People descended very quickly, absorbing they hysteria and heresy promulgated by sons of Belial like Reinhard Bonke.

There is an older tradition of synchretistic religion in Southern Africa, with it’s main focus being the ZCC, or Zion Christian Church. However, some have found that gentle “nudging” if you wish have brought some of these people closer to an orthodox understanding of the faith. Yet, anomalies, like other posters above noted, are still common, and one should remember that that is probably not all that different from what happened in Europe, when the faith spread there. You really think all those Vikings became “respectable folk” over night??

The sad thing also is that this so-called spread of Christianity in the “global South” is accompanied by age-old heresies, that has nothing to do with tribal religion. Folks I know who were running courses for Reformed Pastors in Botswana and Zambia, suddenly found themselves having to deal with issues like Adoptionism.

In general, though, I find the tone of those who speak of the Global South, or Africa etc etc, extremely condescending, much as a wealthy upper class Ivy league man / women would speak about their beloved pets.

No race, or people, will save humanity or Christendom. We already have a Saviour, people!

10 09 2010
Jared B.

Like Sam, most references I have heard/read about glowing hopes for ‘Christianity in the Global South’ or whatever were of a tone far from what Arturo has apparently been hearing. Mostly I hear it from Protestants, Evangelical and some mainline, who point to Africa to make exactly the opposite point: that America may pass away but the Gospel will continue to grow elsewhere, without help or involvement from the West, so working to preserve ‘specially Western institutional norms is a waste of time compared to the Big Picture.

Two underlying assumptions of that attitude though are the Protestant and especially Evangelical ideals of 1) of a culture/context-free Gospel “message” that can thrive equally well with or without all the trappings of class, language, culture, and history; 2) locally independent churches, so that the way “Christianity is done” in Africa need not have any relevance to America, and vice versa.

There are plenty of Catholics who kind of make the first assumption too, but the second one doesn’t make any sense. “Christians in Africa do such-and-such” is a very different reality than “Some members of our Church do…”

9 09 2010
Sam Urfer

I, for one, have been encouraged by my interactions with African priests not because they fit any sort of Bourgeoisie model of “European” Christianity, but because they are precisely *not* that way.

9 09 2010

Way to rain on the parade:


I think this author gets it half right in the last paragraph. Of course it depends what he means by Christianity (being an independent Baptist) is completely different from any Catholic definition of Christianity.

9 09 2010
Henry Karlson

One interesting place, to me, is India. In it, we see the conflict of tradition and modernity coming from the way the Thomas Christians were treated by later Roman missionaries. Despite their long-standing place in India, their churches were destroyed, their books were burned, because of all kinds of fears about them being 1) heretics and 2) too pagan. While there was some level of peace established between the two groups of Catholics, it is interesting to see how “pagan” the native Thomas Christians can be (it depends, of course, which ones, some are highly influenced by modernity). Not only do their priests learn yoga, the Thomas Christians were known to 1) help out at Hindu temples and 2) see some sort of friendship between the Christian saints and Hindu gods.

9 09 2010

Arturo: Maybe it isn’t as vulgar as getting a BMW or a huge mansion, but often it has to do with “cleaning up one’s act” so to speak: getting off the drugs, the porn, healing one’s marriage, etc. Catholicism at least was never a religion that promised any of those things.

I beg to differ on the juncture of Catholicism and materialism. American Catholicism has caught up with the commercial tendencies of developed world therapeutic Christianity. Certain aspects of American Catholicism are consumer products. Churches have often marketed a range of therapeutic options (12-step, ex-gay groups, post-abortion healing etc). Yet this marketing would not be successful if it did not tap a deep vein of alienation in developed societies comparable to the basic material needs of those in developing countries.

It just makes sense that a radical change of society would result in a change of gods.

Societal radicalism and divine regime change are bidirectional (should we continue with the somewhat artificial developed/developing binary). The tendency in developed-world Christianity to couch in therapeutic/pseudo-psychological terms what was once (and still is) properly sacramental mirrors the satiation of basic material needs promised by the developing world prosperity gospel. Emotional/psychological need are significant and essential even if many in the developed world are not in immediate danger of hunger or exposure. Many in the developed world starve from an alienation that derives in part from the over-consumption of luxury. Wish fulfillment religion is neither a luxury or a necessity, but rather a significant response to any basal alienation.

9 09 2010


I know there’s no reason to expect Christianity in Africa to mimic that of the adherents of First Things. At the same time, the kind of Christianity advocated at First Things was not itself anything more than a syncretistic variant on Catholicism, especially in the days of the late Father Neuhaus. It was, as you put it, a “respectable.” It was designed for Americans: a conflation of Catholicism and evangelicalism.

9 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I am going to rain on this parade and say that numerically speaking the traditionalist presence in Africa is negligible. So this is totally a non-issue.

I am waiting for some Orthodox person to chime in and talk about their missions there. Again, a non-issue.

9 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I think people are complicating things too much. It’s really very simple. In the developed world, we have the luxury of thinking somehow that divine intervention comes only through institutional channels. The institution is the ultimate manifestation of the divine, especially for Catholics. Now, American religiosity isn’t even consistent in this way, since the ecstatic and charismatic have played and continued to play huge roles in our ideas concerning religion. Maybe it isn’t as vulgar as getting a BMW or a huge mansion, but often it has to do with “cleaning up one’s act” so to speak: getting off the drugs, the porn, healing one’s marriage, etc. Catholicism at least was never a religion that promised any of those things.

I would argue then that the the growth of Christianity in Africa and other places has to do with the immediacy of the divine in the context of the transition into modernity. The god of Christianity is more powerful than the ancestor spirits (who turn out to be devils in the Christian narrative) and they can’t give you the modern life with all its amenities the way Jesus can. Whereas the interaction of the divine used to be from god to community (granting rain for the harvest, protecting from pests etc.) now it is from god to individual especially in urban settings. It just makes sense that god would become a “burning in the bosom” in racuous Pentecostal-style services, where people fall over, start speaking in tongues, start casting out devils, and so forth. In an atmosphere in which Western upward mobility is beamed into your home (or shack) every night via satellite, do you really think that Baroque ritual is going to say anything to most of these people? It certainly doesn’t say anything to most Americans, even Catholics.

As Maya Deren says, for the poorer peoples of the world, religion must provide not only a reason for living, but a means for living. For us, religion is just a hobby. We don’t need to be Catholic, Protestant, pagan, etc. to live, to have a job, to pay the bills, etc. Religion is an elaborate trinket in our lives that makes us “feel good”. If you miss Mass on Sunday, do you really think God is going to send you a flat tire on Monday morning? There is always damnation to Hell, but most modern people don’t have that eschatological end in mind when practicing their religion. Even the tropes and the language that Catholics especially have concerning their religion come from a written bourgeois culture of spiritual self-improvement and institutional loyalty, both of which are luxuries of people who didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Other people don’t have that luxury: they feel their religion has to literally feed them, or they will ditch it.

It just makes sense that a radical change of society would result in a change of gods.

9 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Except when it harms children, makes certain people rich, and gives people earthly advantages that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Kinda like Jesus.

9 09 2010

Actually, the people were relieved when the missionaries destroyed the witch doctor’s hut with all his trinkets and things because they lived in fear of him for the power they thought he had to curse things or cast spells on them or their livestock. Think of St. Boniface cutting down the “sacred” tree of Thor which in turn freed the pagans from their (mostly mental) bondage to these vindictive “gods”.

Customs are one thing, paganism is something else completely. Obviously people are going to keep their dress, foods, etc. and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. From my conversations with the FSSP and ICRSS priests, they do not tolerate syncretism for the obvious reason that the gods of the pagans are devils and if one is going to be a Catholic they have to renounce all of that stuff.

Of course, you don’t go smashing idols and burning the witch doctor hut the first thing when you get into town. You’ve got to convert folks, and they’ll burn smash their own idols and burn their own talismans (cf. Acts 19:19).

9 09 2010

What a good point, sortaCatholic. Arturo’s all for the religion of the people except……

9 09 2010

What then of the non-prosperity gospel Christians in the developed world?

Sorry, that should be “developing”

9 09 2010

I have not yet read comparisons of the prosperity gospel in the developed world and in the developing world. If any of this blog’s readers know of interesting studies, please let us all know.

The prosperity gospel ideology is identical across societies. God rewards those of faith and great (monetary) sacrifice with material benefits. In all instances of the prosperity gospel, most of the tithes funnel into a pastor’s bank account. The starving mouths and fetid streets of the global south and the jobless and foreclosed of the developed world receive no benefit from a pyramid scheme in choir robe. This is all well known.

What then of the non-prosperity gospel Christians in the developed world? The success or failure of liturgical Christianity (i.e. Catholicism or Anglicanism) in the global south often hinges on the liturgical churches’ ability to apply ritualism to the post-colonial hierarchy of need. Sure, it’s great to see an ancient rite pontifical Mass in Nigeria. Still, does this expression of colonial-missionary belief and ritual harmonize with the economic and developmental trends of post-colonialism? Taken another way, is the prosperity gospel a post-colonial colonization that has been inculturated differently than the earlier mission work of liturgical churches? Why has the prosperity gospel displaced the mission work of other Christian denominations?

I propose that the success of the prosperity gospel in both the developed and developing world stems from the disintegration of theurgical and doctrinal import in Christian ritual. In a world where portable TVs and VCRs have replaced African storytellers and Indonesian shadow puppet epics, and 700 channels of satellite TV have replaced reading and conversation, ritual as a vehicle for enlightenment is easily replaced by Christianized materialistic ritual. This new scheme in a Christian wrapper better explains the obstacles and sorrows of life. A neglect of the prosperity gospel is akin to the neglect of folk religion: a disregard for either drives a further wedge between “people” and “organized religion”.

9 09 2010

As I mentioned in a post from last week or so, we don’t really know what those people in Nigeria and Benin are doing Monday through Saturday. I don’t see any real contradiction with someone attending a Latin Mass on Saturday and then going to some charismatic activity on Monday. I think many of the places where the FSSP and ICKSP work are isolated villages where they’re the only game in town, so to speak, and I doubt that the people would want to give up their customs just because some white guy tells them so. Since Archbishop Lefebvre was working during the colonial period, I suspect he could get away with burning down houses. If a white priest tried that today, he’d probably cause a major riot.

9 09 2010
The Western Confucian

My parents’ Lutheran parish was a bit taken aback when the pastor of their sister parish in Tanzania visited and preached to the WASP parents that they had to protect their children from the Devil.

9 09 2010

Considering how most of our missionaries are nowadays, this is not surprising at all. I always thought it was interesting reading Archbishop Levebvre’s accounts as a missionary in Africa and the rather “un-PC” things they used to do like burn down the witch doctor’s hut after he died to convince them that his spells and trinkets were just useless superstition. Well, at least there are the FSSP and ICRSS down there…

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