Friday, February 23, 2007

African Anglicans Bring The Good News to America

Last week I noted the efforts to bring Anglicans and Roman Catholics back together under the authority of the Bishop of Rome (the 'Pope,' to you and me). Today NYU's Professor Jonathan Zimmerman examines the degree to which Western churches - particularly the Anglicans - are splitting from their more conservative third world counterparts. It is a sign of the crisis of modern Christianity - or at least some branches of it:

For nearly 500 years, Christians from Europe and the Americas tried to foist their own language, culture and religion upon Africa. Now the tables have turned.

To understand why, we need to return to the era immediately following World War Two. As anti-colonial movements swept Africa, sympathetic Western missionaries began to question the arrogant and ethnocentric assumptions that had marked so much Christian effort on the continent.

Decrying prior campaigns to "civilize" the Africans, liberals from the West substituted the language of culture. Every people had a culture, the argument went; no culture was inherently better or worse than another; hence Westerners should take special care to respect and even defend the cultures they encountered in Africa.

But how could you preserve African culture, even as you converted Africans to your own religion? For some missionaries, the answer lay in new syncretic forms of worship that fused indigenous traditions to Christian doctrine. For many Western liberals, however, the rise of the culture concept cast the entire missionary endeavor into doubt.

"We questioned what right we have to intervene in the education of people of another culture and what our motives are in desiring to intervene," wrote two American missionaries, in a typical statement. "Do we want to 'domesticate' the people in one way or another, make them like us, convince them to adopt our culture?" The question contained its own answer.

To shed their ethnocentric baggage, indeed, liberal Americans increasingly abandoned the term "missionary" itself. One mission renamed its project "overseas service other missionaries simply called themselves volunteers, echoing the Peace Corps and other secular agencies. "The very word 'missionary' calls up notions of superiority," explained one American.

And in an era of culture, that was the one thing nobody wanted to be.

Into this breach stepped a confident new generation of conservative missionaries, seeking to convert new souls to Christ. Conversant with African history and traditions, they did their best to couch their message in culturally appropriate terms. But they never wavered from the message itself: Jesus was Lord, Scripture was literal Truth, and anyone who believed otherwise was destined for hell.

Today, nine of 10 Westerners who call themselves "missionaries" hail from a conservative or evangelical church. And they have done their job well. That's why African Christians stand so far to the right of their brethren in the West on a host of religious and cultural questions: abortion, gay rights, female priest ordination and more.

And that's why they're starting to evangelize us, to the chagrin of many Americans.

As The West confronts violent Islamism, many elements of western culture - both secular and religious - continue to preach that our culture and values are no better than any other. They say that Christianity is no more the route to salvation than Islam, Judaism, Shinto, Buddhism, or Wiccan. Well, when we ourselves say that our ideas are no better than any other, how can we hope for them to spread to other parts of the world? Indeed: why try to propagate them in any way? Why try to pass them on even to our own children?

The churches are in the crosshairs of this debate, because essential to their mission is the idea that they have the right idea - not just one of many good ones. To some degree, those who still agree on this central tenet - that some ideas are better than others - must seek kinship and communion with their like-minded brethren. Agreement on this idea might be more important than agreement on doctrine.

Hhmm... I think I need to read more Mark Steyn.

Hat Tip: Joe

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"That's why African Christians stand so far to the right of their brethren in the West on a host of religious and cultural questions: abortion, gay rights, female priest ordination and more."

No, it's because every backward nation starts out with a culturally conservative set of social constructs. As societies advance, those historical prejudices slowly fade away under the influence of rationalism.