WORLDVIEW: Atheist's prescription for Africa: missions

by Erich Bridges, posted Thursday, May 14, 2009 (10 years ago)

EDITOR'S NOTE: "WorldView Conversation," the blog related to this column, can be found at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. An audio version of this column is available at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/72/7268/7268-40896.mp3.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--If you think evangelical Christianity is unfairly caricatured by American opinion makers, you might want to avoid Europe.

There, cultural commissars in some circles compare evangelicals with the Taliban -- unfavorably. By their lights, we're medieval, superstitious enemies of enlightenment and progress who should be silenced for good.

So it was noteworthy when an article praising Christian missions in Africa appeared in The Times of London a few months ago. Even more remarkable: It was written by Matthew Parris, a self-professed atheist (read it at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece).

Parris, a Times columnist and former member of Parliament, spent his boyhood in what is now Malawi. He returned there last year with a secular charity that assists villages lacking clean water.

"It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities," Parris writes of the journey. "But traveling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my worldview, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

"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."

Parris has applauded such efforts before, but he used to qualify the praise with a caveat:

"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," he acknowledges. "[O]nly 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."

African followers of Christ, Parris says, have a different look in their eyes. And they look you in the eye, not down or away. The "most impressive" African members of the secular aid agency he worked with in Malawi "were, privately, strong Christians."

They worked diligently and optimistically, he believes, because they have a different view of the universe and their place in it. They and other African Christians he has encountered over the years don't fear ancestors, evil spirits or spells. They are curious, engaged with the world. They take action, because they don't believe they are victims of irresistible fate. They don't buy into the traditional tribal pressure that keeps villages under the thumbs of chiefs and nations under the thumbs of "big man" gangsters.

Parris rejects the notion, fashionable among many academics, that tribal culture is off-limits to criticism just because it is indigenous to Africa. Tribal values have many strengths, but they tend to "grind 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."

In stark contrast, "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 ... smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold onto to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates."

Contrarians will say Parris is a prisoner of his own culture, an intellectual imperialist trying to re-colonize Africa with a Western individualism that doesn't work all that well in the West. If Christianity is so great, they may ask, why hasn't Parris himself become a believer?

True, Parris is much more interested in the cultural benefits of Christian faith than the faith itself. But as a nonbeliever, he recognizes an undeniable fact: The Gospel changes hearts and minds, transforms societies and liberates people from the cultural chains that bind them. In African and Asian cultures that stifle the individual will, Christ shines the light of spiritual freedom. In Western cultures dying from individualism and materialism, He points toward a community -- the church -- where people love one another as He loves us. His Spirit works within every human culture, but He confronts and transcends cultures when they contradict His truth.

Africa -- like the rest of the globe -- hungers for such truth.

"Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation," Parris says, would "leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete."


Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.

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