A (rather odd) Lecture on Indigenous African Christianity.

(For the sake of honouring an older man whose views i do not agree with, the seminary at which this lecture was given as well as the name of the man are withheld. But if you were there then you know all about it.)

Last week, I received an sms from a friend at a local seminary in Nairobi, informing me about an open lecture to be given by a world renowned professor whose name didn’t immediately ring a bell I must admit, but after a bit of prodding, I realised that I indeed had encountered his work in my ‘Communication and Culture’ lectures at university. The lecture as my friend said in the sms would centre on the relevance of the Jewish bible to African independent churches. I figured, ‘Cool! A free lecture on Valentine’s Day. Not doing anything really so why not go,’

Arriving at the lecture hall, I saw the place packed but managed to get a good seat in spite of having wasted a bit of time at the seminary’s library looking up books by John Owen and B.B Warfield. Theological eye candy I tell you! Everyone inside seemed eager to hear what this sage of African philosophy and Christian theology would say. Little did I know that my friend had inadvertently misled me – I believed that it would address the relevance of the Old Testament to ‘modern urban non-denominational churches’ …either that or I’m getting a bit rusty upstairs…Instead, the lecture addressed the role of the Old Testament in the spiritual life of African Independent Churches (A.I.C’s) and if you’re unfamiliar with A.I.C’s then by a brief way of introduction; they are religions that blend African customs with Christianity.

In attendance were students from other tertiary institutions who belong to a few A.I.C churches in Kenya. His lecture was very informative and for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into it though my intention is indeed to give an overview of it.

He gave loads of insight into how Africans struggled to  accept Christianity wholesale and thus blended their customs with Christianity – the impetus for this being their reading of the Jewish Bible i.e.  Old Testament and realising that animal sacrifices and and a connection to atonement similar to their own, were found therein. Unfortunately, the term syncretism was never brought up as it rightly should have, and to a large extent, many of the perspectives that resulted from this syncretism were praised in the name of finding an authentic faith that spoke to the African heart.

Throughout this lecture I must admit I was a tad bit uncomfortable. There is another oft-ignored level at which all of mankind throughout the ages have been considered equal and it is summed up with this statement: for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Rather than point this out as a respected theologian, the good professor did not seem to consider equality at this level worth speaking about. Besides our common anthropology as members of the human race whose father is Adam, the fall of mankind through the fall of Adam as our federal head is one of the truest statements of equality. As a theologian he should know this intuitively.

In as much as I happened to fidget within, the lecture was indeed helpful. When a reference to the pagan syncretism of a Nigerian sect was brought to light that involved the psalms repeated a number of times as some kind of verbal talisman whilst urination occurred within a circle of lit candles…seriously… I remembered what Pastor Conrad Mbewe said when he spoke of how wary we ought to be of what he called ‘Nigerian nonsense,’- As he explained the intricacies of this ritual, people in the hall broke out in laughter but a casual look around made me realise that to some, and rightly so, it was a grim and saddening revelation of what the word of God had been reduced to.

As I mentally made notes of what I agreed with and vehemently disagreed with, the Q&A session began and as expected, the endorsement of this syncretism was questioned indirectly. Two questions that were quite significant touched on hermeneutics and its usage if at all within these A.I.C churches. Another question was raised that cited Tertuallian and the notion that the usage of the Old Testament exclusively was in fact a truncation of the Bible. (At this point I realise that I must explain that within A.I.C’s the New Testament is not rejected but is considered to be so insignificant compared to the Old Testament that the entire N.T is simply regarded as one book within the Old Testament)

I must admit that I was glad to hear this last question because as the lecture seemed to espouse an ‘African hermeneutic or interpretation’ the people that came to mind who already contributed to historical Christianity were Origen, Tertullian and Augustine; three African theologians who today still have had an immense influence on Christianity.

Trends come and go. They always do. And I must be honest and say that the oncoming one (if indeed it is on its way) that seeks to ‘Africanise’ Christianity with no respect for what the Bible is, nor accept or tolerate a basic understanding of how to approach the Bible, will also come and go. With the lecture over, I spoke to my friend outside the lecture hall and compared notes with him on the lecture.

Here are a number of rough thoughts regarding what I believe we ought to consider as African Christians in light of the challenges that may face us in the future:

  • Cultural Christianity will not do:

It’s always hard to shoot a moving erratic target. Culture acts in such a way. It is always changing and what may seem to be familiar on the aesthetic level may very well be antithetical to the Christian faith on a deeper albeit seemingly imperceptible level. It would seem that on the sole basis of the lecture, A.I.C churches do not understand that animal sacrifices were a shadow of what was to come; the ultimate atonement through Christ’s death. If we are to be true Christians who make a mark on the earth, we need to realise that ‘Christianese’ or whatever other pseudo religious ‘dress-up game’ we play will not work, and we will fail embarrassingly. Let’s get our message right, then let the message dictate how we create and shape culture; building from the inside out. The message we need to get right as African Christians is about what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection and not what we can do for ourselves.

  • A robust understanding of God’s sovereignty in African history is desperately needed:

The hand of God was and remains present within history; African history included. Unfortunately, as Africans we tend to only see the evil that resulted out of colonialism and not see whatever good came from that period thus throwing the baby out with the bath water. Whatever good that came from this period ought to be rightly attributed to the faithfulness and providence of God when many Christian missionaries failed to be faithful in many ways. God did not cease to be God because of the partitioning of Africa. The African on the pew on Sunday needs to know this and know it well. And he needs the preacher on the pulpit to faithfully exposit the word of God so that the message affects him/her appropriately by the power of the Holy Spirit.

  • Faithfulness not relevance should be primary:

In a bid to look relevant, many have gone astray from their moral and theological centres. As Christians we ought to take heed of them such as the emergent movement and treat religious trends here in Africa that do not centre on the gospel, with the same degree of suspicion that we do the emergent movement. Same wolf, different fleece; and by this I mean that the devil is as culturally savvy if not more so than any of us could ever be.

  • The Universal Church. We need to understand what this means for us as Africans:

We must remember that the faith of saints long gone is the same faith that we received. We ought not to sing hymns and upon seeing words like ‘winter’ begin to assume  that it is at the sensory level at which we connect with the saints long gone who are now present with the Lord. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who connects and builds up his church through the various timelines and nations. Unfortunately, I have learned from experience that many African Christians are not taken to engaging theses matters at the intellectual level I must regretfully say. This must change.

  • Discipleship. It’s a must, not an option:

Unfortunately the Bible [in a sense] did come with the gun to Africa. This is something we need to face but that’s not where the story ends. What was meant for evil, God used for good and drew unto himself a great number of people from this continent. And he will continue to do so. Though the early missionaries strived to share their faith and many died for this and have since gone on to their reward, it is not well known whether they also shared their lives with the Africans they proselytized. As African Christians we have the opportunity to do so as we share our faith, even now.  And as we do it, we ought not to despise our brothers in the faith from the past; African or Caucasian who had yokes upon them that we are incapable of understanding in this present age.