A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

“Truly African”

If you’ve ever stood in the middle of African worship, it’s…well, it’s pretty hard to stand still.

As I first stood just mildly observing at our recent refugee center staff retreat, I marveled at the full-bodied–literally!–movement and singing: music that took over my heart, my body. I was, um, really dancing (don’t necessarily try to picture it…) to worship for the first time. Moisture leaked from the corners of my eyes. Perhaps you can see what I’m talking about:

In staff devotions last week, I told the teachers, this is just a sliver of what the African church offers the world. Every culture has its own strengths, its own vibrant display of the image of God. And when Jesus comes, I have watched so many become the truest version of themselves.

A remarkable Tim Keller podcast on culture (“Culture” on this list)mentions a book, Whose Religion Is Christianity? written by an African. And this is what I love: The man addresses the opinion that those who bring Christianity to Africa are destroying African culture. As one who finds Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible a formidable cautionary tale, this intrigues me–and somehow the answer becomes very important to my life.

The author counters that this argument is really saying Christianity is for some cultures, but not for all.

Africa, for one, has always known that there are powerful spiritual forces in the world, the author says (via Keller, via me, at any rate. My apologies to both). The businessman, then, who comes in and says that there are no spiritual forces, that it’s a bunch of bunk, is practicing a manner of cultural totalitarianism.

But Christianity not only acknowledged those forces, but gave them true, real hope and power for those spiritual forces. (This, in fact, I have seen, in light of the child sacrifice that still causes bodies to wash up on the banks of the Nile, and from the numerous haunting stories of friends.) As this author challenges, Christianity revives cultures to be their fullest form of themselves–as it did for my own ancestors, and as it does for me. Christianity makes Africa truly African.

Some of my favorite moments with Oliver, my African housekeeper and closest Ugandan friend, pop up when she is singing a well-loved hymn as she works around the house—in Luganda. Not being able to resist a tune I love with so much rich history in my own life and in our faith (and yet painfully elementary in my Luganda), I join in singing in English. We cheerily sing alongside each other. At the end, she always smiles and says something like, “Who taught you that?” Like it was her song to begin with. Which makes me laugh.

It makes me grateful, at those moments and also when I’m driving down the road past the churches here, for all the missionaries who’ve come before me. The ones who brought their coffins with them, and said goodbye to their families without the balm of even spotty FaceTime or British Airways or typhoid shots. Those who didn’t know how they would die, but knew they would die here, and would likely die young. They’re people who came into these rainforests before the roads were paved or were roads at all. Their white faces were the first some tribes had ever glimpsed.

So though those hymns Oliver happily sings in her airy alto may be an evidence of European culture, they remind me of the powerful work God is doing here. Christianity is not “borrowed” here in Africa any more than it is in mine. And though at times the church is limping through troublesome theology or the sizeable restraints of poverty, I have gotten a good peek at why it is so beautiful in God’s sight.

For centuries before me and Oliver, He has been breathing new life into peoples whom He had loved and not forgotten even when the rest of the world didn’t know their names, or only wanted what they can get. I love that God loves and has loved Africa, and continues to bring her to stunning, vivid life.

I believe the song above, a Swahili praise song, is translated something like, I’ve searched the world to see if there was anyone like our God, and found there is no one like Him.

This is unspeakably true for me.

Like this post? You might like

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4 Comments

  1. Janel, I love, love this post! It’s interesting how some believe Christianity is “American” or a “white man’s religion” when it originated in the Middle East and Africa. Your thoughts remind of the Perspectives course’s take on culture, which is summed up in this quote from Ralph Winter: “The gospel must be distinguished from all human cultures. It is divine revelation, not human speculation. Since it belongs to no one culture, it can be adequately expressed in all of them. “

    • Wow–I love that quote, Ruthie! (I may have to steal it 😉 ). I couldn’t agree with you more. God is even more beautiful to me because of what I have seen in Africa and Africans. Great to hear from you, friend.

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