Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.
It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling 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 world view, 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.
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.
First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.
We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.
This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. "Privately" because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.
It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: "theirs" and therefore best for "them"; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.
I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the "big man" and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.
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.
Ruminations by Anne Chamberlin on home, church, and culture -- and here showing off an adorable new baby niece.
Book and Movie List
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
At the moment I am a morning person staying up late at night, reading desperately in carpool line and at gas station pumps --the picture of the undisciplined, novel-reading housewife someone might have written a cautionary tale about in 1890. (Well, minus the carpool lines and gas station pumps.) Thanks a lot, David Mitchell.
Paul Simon was the only living boy in New York, and I suspect I am the only living English major to discover Mitchell just last week. This guy is a brilliant writer, and I never say brilliant. A tight, satisfying story compiled of tight, satisfying stories, a walk through time via reincarnation: racism, courage, liberation, political economy, stewardship of the earth, and, ultimately, human nature. Stories within stories, and for that matter, are they stories or historical narratives?
One may reject the Buddhist and hyper-feminist notions, but if you want a moving picture of both original sin and human potential, this novel is it. Consciously or unconsciously, it is also profoundly pro-life, especially the story of Sonmi.
Cloud Atlas is several stories in different genres -- the journal travelogue, the letter, the spy thriller, the humorous narrative, the sci-fi novel. His characters are full but his descriptions are efficient.
Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis. Full of Lewis insight into the human condition...expressed through his practical, truthful yet charitable analysis of his childhood, parents, and education.
Is Christianity Good for the World?This little book is the published debate (on the title's topic) between the late Christopher Hitchens, an atheist, and Douglas Wilson, a Christian. I recommend it as the writers are intelligent, concise, articulate, witty communicators and the presentation is lean -- you can read it in the course of a soccer game. I put it down and was struck by Isaiah 6:9. The truth can be jumping around with a placard, a megaphone, and a purple wig right in front of us.... and we can totally miss it.
The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, both by HG Wells. Somehow I had never read these, but I read both over the holidays and enjoyed these stories, his imagination, and the warnings against hubris. Stories were less-bleak versions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor in The Invisible Man keeps a moral compass because he remains in touch with humanity. The scientist locks himself away to study and experiment -- and falls out of touch with compassion and morality. He sees himself and his pursuits as "above" the everyday needs of his fellow man.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Tom Wolfe captures the LSD craze and generation, fictionally chronicling the real-life travels of Ken Kesey. It is intuitively written and graphic. Well-done, perhaps too detailed in its trippy-ness and wretchedness...gives one a headache.
The Prodigal God, by Tim Keller. Are you the older son or the younger, in that defining parable? Do you try to get something from God by leveraging righteousness, and do you think God owes you, and are you angry at Him when things go wrong? Or perhaps in your subversiveness or alternative lifestyle you seek to gain your own salvation, to save yourself or this world on your own? The parable that lays bare the truth about the idolatry of Self, the depth of our need, the Grace of the Father, and the only worthy achievement in life...to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
Let's Study Ephesians, by Sinclair Fergusen.
Gilead...Marilynne Robinson. This is a beautiful book.
The Christian Liberty Nature Reader is our main kg and 1st grade science text this year -- a new edition of an old fashioned text -- and it is just so fun and interesting. We have learned about ants and flies and beetles. And the narrator does winning things like refer to "Mrs. Fly" and "her babies." The information is rather in depth but told in such a way that the kids listen and learn easily.
Called Out of Darkness, Anne Rice. This is Anne Rice's (Interview with a Vampire) recounting of her turn to atheism in college and then her return, in her 50s, to Catholicism.
It is dear to meet in the pages of a book a seeker who has frankly wrestled with the unknown and the complicated, and then surrendered to the known and the simple. This is an expression of loving Jesus for Who He is, and Rice decides to throw up her hands and leave to Him the part she doesn't understand. Surely we can trust Him with that and with this world, with our family, and friends.
As a writer, she is keenly interested in defending the Gospels as eye witness, true accounts.
As an aside, the description of her young life as a devout Catholic shed some helpful light on my Catholic education in high school. And her discussion of certain aspects of the Roman Catholic liturgy took me back, movingly, to my days as a girl and young woman in the Episcopal church. (Thanks to crazy old Henry VIII, the liturgy is very similar!)
The Root and the Branch. Joseph Pipa.Pipa -- in this short and efficient book -- defends the mystery of both the humanity and deity of Christ from Scripture. It has been edifying to me to revisit these basic truths about Christ. He is both the root of Jesse (all humanity springs from the Divine Word's creative power as recounted in Genesis) and a branch in the line of David (that Word was made flesh, born of man -- a lowly virgin, Mary -- and adopted by a human man, Joseph -- both of whom hail from genealogical lines that trace back to David, the son of Jesse). This is the definitive answer to the Mormon and Jehovah's Witnessses mis-readings of Scripture (and a fleshed out, readable version of the Council of Chalcedon).
The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky. Another Kurlansky project, shorter, lighter and more whimsical than Salt. A fun read about the oyster trade, ostensibly, but really about the history of New York City.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. Maybe my favorite book! Dillard describes her encounters with nature and human nature in extended prose, somehow making botany, zoology, and biology into poetry. It is like reading the human amplification of the chapters in Job where God describes His handiwork. Dillard's response to creation is frank wonder and delight.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. The kids and I just listened to this classic on audiotape in the car and it had us all entranced, with Ben saying when we'd arrive home, "Can we just drive around a little longer and listen?" She treats the teenage growing up years very tenderly and earnestly, and not without realism. I cried when Beth died.
Little Heathens, by Mildred Armstong Kalish This is a lively, good natured book about living on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. It is a straightforward journal of family life at the time, and gives all sorts of fun descriptions of farm life; church life; chores and how they were done; food and how it was made, preserved, stored; home medical remedies; and general farm family ethics.
Salt, by Mark Kurlansky. An interesting book about the history of salt, which really is a thumbnail sketch of world history and basic economics. Learn about the origins of many words and phrases and certain kinds of food.
At Day's Close, by A. Roger Ekirch. This is a "history of night" in pre-industrial/early modern times (ie, basically late middle ages to just before electricity).
First of all, a disclaimer: This book is rollicking, rapid series of data and quotes. An attempt is made to organize it contents, but it still lacks enough perspective and framework. Ekirch has a prodigious amount of information to share, and it is hard to get a sense of how prevalent and frequent behaviors and beliefs were in context with the times.
That said, it is addictive read, and the reader is drawn inexorably into the social, familial, criminal, vocational, and religious practices of pre-industrial people, mostly in Europe and North America -- their beliefs about night time before electricity...and lighted houses and streets.
The most interesting part of his research is, I think, almost groundbreaking and comes at the end, when Ekirch discusses common sleep patterns before electricity. This section is almost a separate book in and of itself. The way people slept in early modern times provided for a different kind of night rhythm and a different kind of night time personal "culture" ...it added an unexpected dimension of rest, imagination, and relationship, even.
I was left both thankful to live in the post-industrial age, and also a little suspicious that we moderns may be missing out!
Barefoot Contessa, Family Style, by Ina Garten. A Christmas gift from my Aunt Margaret and Uncle JB, this is a cookbook full of fresh, simple family recipes that look absolutely delicious, and beautiful pictures of the food which, also, looks absolutely delicious. In the back are simple menu plans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Any P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves book. Hats off to Bertie Wooster, the Anti-Hero, and Jeeves, the all-suffering and omniscient man among men. I took Wodehouse to China to read when I felt down. It is impossible to feel dark after a few mishaps at Totleigh Towers. I tried Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, but Jim doesn't hold a candle to Bertie Wooster.
Holiness, JC Ryle. This book was written in the late 1800's and actually is a primer about being a Christian! Ryle tackles many topics: doctrinal basics that transcend denomination, wrong beliefs people have, how our belief relates to life, common pitfalls for Christians, and more. It is a good example of how theology is, by nature, practical. It is a dense and packed book, but Ryle outlines his thoughts very clearly. He writes with a winsome mixture of both zealous conviction and sympathy.
Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, John Piper and Justin Taylor, general editors. My husband is a fan of John Piper's writings and says this explains and describes the controversial doctrine of election in the most powerful, humble, convincing, and moving way. I have appreciated the excerpts he has read to me.
Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, edited by Ken M. Campbell. Our pastor recommended this interesting book to me, a collection of scholarly but accessible essays by historians on what kinds of marital and family laws and practices existed in the Hebrew world of the Old Testament and in the other local cultures at the time.
Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, editors. A collection of interesting essays, but mainly worth reading for John Piper's sweet essay tribute to/description of his mother at the beginning.
O Brother Where Art Thou. The Odyssey meets Flannery O'Connor while Alison Krauss sings about baptism. Funny, too. Paraphrase of a quote: "Well, you've sold your soul to the devil, and he's just been born again. Looks like I'm the only one here who's unaffiliated." Not long until he finds himself affiliatin' "real quick."