Nobel-prize winning write V.S. Naipaul is directing his considerable writing talents to a subject I am very interested in as well, African Spirituality. The spectacular growth of Non-Western Christianity is what Philip Jenkins has called "The Next Christendom" or the most important moment in religious history since the Protestant Reformation. The bulk of this growth is occurring in places like China, India, Brazil, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is now estimated to have 390 million Christians. How African Christianity is processed and transported oversees will have a big impact on the world. Naipaul's new book The Masque of African Belief promises to be an excellent examination of the subject.
Christianity in Africa is often inner-mixed with local religious beliefs and practices. This is called syncretism. To some extend, syncretism occurs in any culture. It can eventually get institutionalized and we don't even recognize it anymore. Culture inevitable affects Christianity and this seemed to be fine with Jesus and the Bible which continually sees culture absorbed, but the ultimate meanings changed after it encounters the Christian message.
African Christianity is often used as an example of overly-sycretistic Christianity because it is true that many African Christians still practice folk religion--and perhaps even trust it more than the Bible at times. Yet, on the other hand, African Christianity is much more likely to take the Gospel stories of miracles as literal and possible even in today's world---and lo and behold, more miracles due tend to occur in these settings where people value the supernatural.
In much of the world, the supernatural and the material world do not live in hostility. Whether it's secularized Europeans planning vacation pilgrimages to Poland, Portugal, or France to see the Virgin, Japanese construction companies paying tribute to a Shinto Shrine before a new modern railway is built, or an African witch-doctor making appointments using their cell phone, the world is still remarkably spiritual in most places.
The difference, however, is to the degree which the spiritual affects daily life. Naipaul's journey is into 21st Century Africa where the spiritual is very much everywhere.
From the Book Review:
There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don't want to talk about it. We don't know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.
Political-correctness, which is often the death of any good scholarship and analysis has prevented a lot of examination of this subject. One of the reasons I have valued V.S. Naipaul is for his willingness to ignore political-correctness and show the grime and grit beneath cultures.
The review continues:
In most indigenous African religions, "God" is pretty much inaccessible to humans. But they believe every human is surrounded by a swirl of spirits—of the dead, of the living who can temporarily leave their bodies, of nature—that are constantly at work. Many of these spirits will take on physical representations at key moments, from trees to carved idols to animals. They can protect and heal, or they can smite and curse. Life is a constant exhausting process of wooing the spirits and warding them off. They can be communicated with directly, but it is easier to talk through the local soothsayers and witch doctors. Africans who describe themselves as Muslims and Christians will often retain these traditional beliefs not far beneath the surface.
These beliefs—like all religions—can bring both sweet, illusory comfort and intense terror. One typical story Naipaul stumbles across captures both. In a corner of Uganda, a young woman explains to Naipaul: "My grandmother produced twins who died. They had to be buried in a special way, in hollow pots, and a shed had to be built over the grave, to protect and shade them. Every year my grandmother went there to tend the shed, feed the grave, and sing and dance there. When she became a Pentecostal, she had to stop that, as it is not allowed. She had to remove the shed, and she was so afraid that the twins would come and kill her and her living children."
And this gets to the heart of the issue, which is that the deep respect for the supernatural that Africans possess is something that secularied Westerners should probably respect more. At the very least, Western Christians---who often use the language of spirituality constantly--but in the final analysis spend little time or energy devoted to it in any real risk-taking way--could learn a lot from African Christians and their confidence in a God that acts not only in history, but in our present age.
On the other hand, my own feeling is that a lot of African Christianity is held hostage to a world that resembles Zoroastrianism (a battle between good and evil with humans as simply the pawns) and not the victorious, empowered, spirituality that Jesus preached. This bent toward superstition and tradition is very common of cultures accepting Christianity for the first time (Actually, Christianity has been in Africa longer than it has in Europe--but I mean Sub-Saharan Christianity as it has grown since the 1930's). Inevitably, a lot of syncretism does occur in the first generations. You even see this in the New Testament and St. Paul has to call out churches that are still clinging to their old pagan ways.
In the end, Christian orthodoxy emerges through the interpretation of scripture and prophetic voices. Notice how in the critics story about Africa a woman superstition is challenged by Pentecostals. Pentecostals, of course, are on the far extreme of belief in spiritual manifestations by Western standards. Yet in Africa, they are the corrective, moderate force. This is why I believe it is not such a terrible thing that Pentecostalism is the primary growth vehicle for Christianity in Africa. In the long run, this is probably the natural corrective. Movements and denominations that are not Pentecostal, will not see the same level of growth. Yet they are important as well.