Epiphany

MATTHEW PARRIS

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.

Between the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, The Times published a remarkable article by atheist Matthew Parris. Parris was born in Johannesburg, and as a boy lived throughout Africa, leaving to attend Cambridge. He became a Member of Parliament in 1979 and later an English journalist.

Just before Christmas he returned to Malawi after 45 years. What he found confronted his secularism, and is perhaps the best analysis you will read by a committed atheist of why the Christian faith is not only transformative of individuals, but also capable of sustaining people as they struggle to build constructive lives together.

First, Parris sets the stage and establishes his credentials:

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.

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.

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 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.

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 noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the (The Times Christmas Appeal) 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.

What is most remarkable about Parris’s piece is that he does not stop here. With precision, he details how the universal Truth of Christianity lifts the tribe above the limitations of materialism and provides the universal Truth essential to sustain peace, progress, and shared dignity.

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.

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.

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 for those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

During a time when many secular theorists predict the inevitable abandonment of faith, Parris ends with the following endorsement:

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.

To which we say Amen, not only for the people of Africa, but for the people of America as well. In fact, during this period of economic disillusionment, Matthew Parris’ article could not have been better timed. Thanks for the belated Christmas gift, Mr. Parris.





ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Matthew Parris. "Epiphany." tothesource (January 7, 2009).

This article reprinted with permission from tothesource.

Tothesource is a forum for integrating thinking and action within a moral framework that takes into account our contemporary situation. We will report the insights of cultural experts to the specific issues we face believing these sources will embolden people to greater faith and action.

THE AUTHOR

Born 7th August 1949 in Johannesburg, Matthew Parris was educated in Britain and Africa, graduating from Clare College, Cambridge and going on to study International Relations at Yale. Elected Member of Parliament for West Derbyshire in 1979, he gave up his seat in 1986 to become presenter of LWT's Weekend World, a political interview programme. A keen runner, he has competed several times in the London Marathon, achieving two hours thirty-two minutes. Parris was awarded the London Press Club's Edgar Wallace Outstanding Reporter of the Year Award in 1990, the British Press Awards Columnist of the Year for 1991 and 1993 and the `What the Papers Say' Columnist of the Year for 1992. In 1994 he won the national newspaper category in the annual media awards given by the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency.

Copyright © 2009 tothesource




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