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ATHEISM: Both agree, Africa needs God

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–A mission board leader in the United States and an atheist in London have some common ground.

Gordon Fort, the mission board leader, noted, “Matthew Parris is right — Africa needs God.” Parris, a columnist for The Times of London, had written a piece titled, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God” in December.

Fort, who grew up in Africa in a missionary family and now serves as vice president of overseas operations for Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board, set forth a qualifier to the column by Parris, who also lived in Africa as a boy.

“… [I]t wasn’t missionaries who brought ‘God’ to Africa,” Fort pointed out. “God was at work in Africa a long time before the first missionary ever made his first footprint in the soil of the African continent.”

Fort, who served as a missionary in Africa for nearly 20 years, provided Baptist Press with an extended reflection on Parris’ column in The Times, which will appear here in full after a recap of the column by Parris, a former member of Parliament whose writings appear in The Times on Thursdays and Saturdays.


Parris’ column followed a trip he made to Malawi, the African country then known as Nyasaland where he had lived 45 years earlier.

“Now a confirmed atheist,” Parris wrote after his visit to Malawi last year, “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 concluded his column by stating: “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.”

Parris wrote that “I used to avoid this truth….” He had acknowledged the value of humanitarian Christian efforts in Africa, thinking “what counted was the help, not the faith.”

“But this doesn’t fit the facts,” Parris wrote.

Parris recounted that African Christians he remembered as a youth “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.”

When he was 24, Parris and four friends traveled through an array of African countries, often sleeping under the stars.

“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,” Parris recounted. “They had not become more deferential towards strangers — in some ways less so — but more open.”

Returning to Malawi last December, Parris wrote that “it was the same.” Though he didn’t meet any missionaries in hotel lobbies, Parris took note of African aid workers who, in their private moments, impressed him by how they evidenced their faith.

While Western academicians have had a hands-off view regarding critique of tribal belief systems, Parris wrote 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,” Parris continued. “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 [tribal] philosphical/spiritual framework,” Parris observed. “It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.”


My parents were missionaries and both are medical doctors. They pioneered medical work in Zimbabwe, arriving in 1952 and beginning their work 60 miles from the nearest town in one of the Tribal Trust areas among the Shona people. Their first clinic was a thatched mud hut. I was born in the bush hospital they founded. My dad delivered me.

Growing up on a bush mission station — the middle of five boys — all my childhood friends were Shona. My best friend was David Muzanenamo. His mom worked at the hospital in the laundry room. He was the youngest of four. David and I hunted and fished together. We herded his family cattle together. We worked the family fields together. As boys, we “endured” church together. We fought the great battles of childhood together. In African terms, we “ate from one pot.”

One Sunday we left the typical two-hour church service and something was bothering me. I couldn’t shake the images and subsequent questions that were tossing themselves around in my young head. Let me describe the church building I had just left.

From a distance you could see the rectangular, white-washed brick church with its classic church steeple on top of the tin roof, pointing its finger upward to remind everyone that passed by or entered its doors — God is in the heavens. As you climbed the stairs and entered the double doors at the front of the church, you passed through a foyer and then into the door to the auditorium. Wooden benches lined the left and right sides. In the front was a platform with a baptistery behind it — a mural of a river flowing. On the left of the platform, a bulletin board declaring proudly how many people had come to Sunday School and another number for those who had brought their Bible that Sunday, and how much money was given in the offering. On the other side of the platform, another bulletin board. This was reserved to inform the congregants of the hymn numbers that would be sung that day from the Shona hymnal filled with its hymns translated from the English version of the Broadman hymnal. Two high-backed wooden chairs were placed on the left and right of the platform, with a wooden pulpit in the middle of the platform. Directly in front of the pulpit, but on the main floor, was a wooden table with the words “In Remembrance of Me” carved into its side. The table was decorated with a bowl of plastic flowers and in front of the bowl was a big white-covered English-version family Bible nestled in its stand. This was Sanyati Baptist Church.

David and I were on our way to his house for Sunday lunch, this image bouncing around my head. We arrived at his yard, and the first order of business was to wash our hands at the stand pipe in the corner of their yard. His sister and mom were in the cooking hut, a round mud hut thatched with elephant grass, a hole in its center to allow the smoke to escape from the wooden fire that cooked the one family meal every day. This always consisted of a coarse white corn meal that was boiled and whipped by a wooden spatula into a sticky porridge-like substance the Shona called “Sadza.” It is the staple meal for millions of Africans. It is eaten at least once every day if at all possible. This staple is accompanied by whatever is available — at minimum a green vegetable; when really lucky, some meat. The order for eating was generally always the same. Men ate first, sitting under the one shade tree in the yard, the pot of Sadza and the bowl of greens placed in the middle of the circle, and each person taking some of the Sadza in their hand, making a ball out of it and then dipping this by turn into the greens and eating the combination until “satisfied.” Sometimes David and I were allowed to eat with the men — always a good day! If not, we waited until all the adults had eaten and then we were allowed to eat what was left — sometimes scraping the cooking pot for the crusted Sadza that had cooked too long.

The meal concluded, we would all sit in the shade of the tree and sometimes his sister would strike up a song. She would sing a line and the rest of us would join in with an echo. Soon all would join in clapping hands in rhythm to the beat. If the song really “moved,” David’s mom would stand up and start dancing, her feet shuffling and stamping in time to the beat. Soon others would join in, and before long we were all dancing in a circle singing, clapping and stamping our feet to the rhythm of the song — its words gripping your heart and your very soul.

So here’s the question that kept bothering me that day: Why do we build rectangular church buildings for people who live in round huts?

Matthew Parris is right — Africa needs God. It desperately needs transformation. Sometimes we try to transform society by treating symptoms. The solution to HIV/AIDS is not education and condoms. The solution to the dependency that has crippled and corrupted Africa is not more money and more aid. The solution to educating the oral-literate cultures of Africa is not using the literate forms of Western education. The only hope for genuine transformation is a changed heart and a changed nature. The only route to the metamorphoses needed is through changing Africa from the inside out. Africa is in desperate need of saving faith.

Let me draw some conclusions from the analogy I have written describing the Baptist church I attended as a boy, David’s home and this whole concept of transforming faith.

The essence of transforming faith is believing in Jesus Christ and His atoning work on the cross as He took on the sins of every human being and was judged, and punished, by God for those sins. It is receiving the gift of salvation offered by God. However, Jesus was born to a Jewish mother, was raised in a Jewish home, ate Jewish food, learned Jewish games, spoke Hebrew and dressed like a Jew. Jesus attended the synagogue and learned Jewish history. When He began to teach the Jewish people the spiritual message He was born to deliver, He did it in Jewish terms. God became flesh and wore the Jewish culture of its day. If Jesus had been born an African, He would have done the same. His message would have been couched in African stories and in African songs. He would have worn African clothing and delivered a message that spoke to the African heart. He would have answered the questions that the African was asking. He would have delivered His message in a culturally relevant form that would fit the African worldview and that would resonate with the African heart. He would have sat down with my friend David and they would have eaten from “one pot.”

Africa needs missionaries, but it is not enough for a missionary to just come to Africa. The missionary must divest himself of his cultural trappings and his traditions of “church” — or the faith he delivers will always be clothed with foreign clothing. The cultural traditions of the architectural form of the building, the music that is sung, the instruments that are played, the style of the clothing that is worn, the format of the services of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper or wedding and funeral services is not dictated by the essence of saving faith. Africa desperately needs transformation. It is a transformation that is only possible when it occurs from the inside out. Africa needs a vibrant faith and Africa does need God. Africa needs an African God.
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press.