Saturday, December 27, 2008

An Atheist on Christian Conversion in Africa

Matthew Parris does not believe in Christianity, but he know a lot about it. And he is amazingly honest, even when what he thinks or sees does not support his ideology. In 2003, although he is a gay man, he wrote a column on why God would not approve of gay bishops. Now in his latest column in The Times, he has written on why he believes Africa needs Christianity.
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

Parris takes the risky step of criticizing tribal group think:
Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Read it all here.

Hat Tip to Titus One Nine and to Karen B in comment #3.


Dr.D said...

The original article is worth reading also. As you say, he is amazingly honest. But at the same time, it seems to me that there is a lack of integrity in his position.

He has written an amazingly powerful argument for Christianity, and yet he is not moved by his own argument. What is wrong with him? Does he deny the strength of his own argument? Is he saying that it is good enough for others, but not good enough for him?

I did not know until I read you post, the part about him being gay, but this suggests to me that he is accustomed to denying the logic of the situation, even when he sees them quite clearly, as he is evidently doing in this instance. That must require a really bent personality!

It is an excellent article, and I thank you, Perpetua, for bringing it to further attention. I think I saw it first at Rod Dreher's site. It points out, not only why Africa needs Christianity, but why the whole world needs Christianity (even though it does not talk about that specifically).

Perpetua said...

Merry Chirstmas Dr. D,
Rod Dreher's site at
I'd love to know what other websites you read.

Dr.D said...

Yes, that is the Dreher site that I was speaking of.

I have so many bookmarks I can spend hours just going from one to the next and then back again. I'll just mention a few:
The TexAnglican
The Anchoress
The Continuum
The Vanishing American
Irate, Tireless Minority
Wise Man's Heart
Ilana Mercer
The Reformed Pastor
Gates of Vienna
Cambria Will Not Yield
The Brussels Journal
American Thinker
Sweetness & Light
and about 20 others

By no means do I agree with everything that I read at these various sites, but I find them all interesting and stimulating. I comment on many of them but not all of them. This is probably a lot more than you really wanted to know, but I hope some of it is of interest.

Merry Christmass to you, Perpetua.