Recent denominational divisions and talk of the rise of the “global South” in Christianity suggest that the two continents are virtually worlds apart when it comes to Christian belief and practice. Philip Jenkins, whose books have popularized this scenario, is of the view that Africa in particular will eclipse Western Christian influence. In a recent lecture sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York attended by RW, Jenkins stressed that on beliefs, sources of authority, and a whole range of other issues, the African approach to Christianity is alien to that of the Western Christian.
He singled out Africans’ approach to the Bible (the topic of his new book, The New Faces of Christianity), arguing that their tribal and pre-modern backgrounds gives them special access to the Old and New Testaments. The biblical themes of blood sacrifice, atonement, poverty, and supernatural occurrences and forces strike a special chord among Africans. Even among African feminist and activist Christians the call for liberation is often inseparable from a belief in deliverance from evil spirits. Jenkins concluded that all of this adds up to inevitable rifts between African and American churches, the most serious being an “unavoidable” split between the Episcopal Church and African Anglican churches.
A somewhat different assessment on the relationship between African Christianity and U.S. churches is offered in the new book, Freedom’s Distant Shores (Baylor University Press, $29.95), edited by R. Drew Smith. The collection of essays tends to support the view that, in Smith’s words, the “American Protestant mission involvement in Africa is hardly at an end.” Smith takes a strongly “post-colonialist” approach, arguing that American churches and foreign missions and parachurch organizations, particularly Pentecostals and charismatics, continue to exert a mainly negative cultural and political influence in Africa. He documents the support of televangelists, such as Pat Robertson, and other American conservative (and in some cases African-American) Christians for Christian African political leaders, such as Frederick Chiluba of Zambia. Smith sees a connection between such church support and the U.S. government’s relations with regimes that “could serve as counterweights to Islamic militancy.”
Church historian Matthews Ojo provides a more qualified account of American influence in the massive expansion of Pentecostalism in Nigeria. Ojo writes that U.S. Pentecostals did have a major role in the Pentecostal revival in Nigeria in the 1970s, but then indigenous and regional factors rapidly took over. By the mid-1990s, Nigerian Pentecostalism had created larger networks “reliant upon Nigeria rather than the United States.” He concludes that “Overall, the interconnections with American Pentecostalism have enabled the Nigerian Pentecostal organizations to develop sophisticated entrepreneurial strategies, to venture into the world of modern media technologies, to develop elaborate networking within and outside Africa, and to appropriate American faith [or prosperity] theologies in support of a broader attitude of religious triumphalism.”
Nico Koopman writes in another chapter that the issue of race that held together mainline and liberationist-minded American churches and theologians and South African Christians has faded with the dismantling of apartheid. What appears to be creating new ties and interests for South Africans is the American attention to “public theology”–how theology relates to the institutions and values of civil society.