Some of my favorite moments with Oliver 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 thankful, 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. You know, the ones who brought their coffins with them, and said goodbye to their families without the balm of even spotty Skype 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 maybe had roads at all. Their white faces were the first some tribes had ever seen. They taught hymns that yes, were full of European culture, but whose words continue to transform a people, and more importantly, allow them to praise in their own tongue the God who made them the beautiful Africans they are.
A remarkable Tim Keller podcast on culture (#27 here) recently mentioned a book, Whose Religion Is Christianity? written, in fact, by an African. And this is what I love. The man addresses the opinion that those of us who bring Christianity to Africa—and in light of what I’ve mentioned, I consider myself among the least!—are destroying African culture. As one who finds Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible a formidable caution, this intrigues me. The author counters that this argument says that Christianity is for some cultures, but not for all.
Every culture has its own strengths, its own display of the image of God. Africa, for one, has always known that there are powerful spiritual forces in the world, he 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 disturbing stories of friends.) As this author challenges, Christianity revives culture 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.
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. 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, in its truest sense.