Ian Flanders produces radio Bible-teaching programmes for Francophone Africa with Grace Baptist Mission Radio.
Understanding his audience led him to study African Traditional Religion (ATR), as he explained to Jim Sayers of Grace Baptist Mission.
Jim: African Traditional Religion has its origins where?
Ian: It’s difficult to trace the origins of ATR. Some ethnologists believe it goes back several millennia. Exactly where it came from is more difficult to say. Some suggest it grew out of ancient Egyptian religion. Some speak of African Traditional Religions rather than African Traditional Religion, in the sense that every tribe and people would have their own specific religion with its own particularities, but at the same time there is enough common ground between these separate religions to speak of it being African Traditional Religion.
Jim: What’s their understanding of God?
Ian: Most of these religions have a notion of there being a supreme God, who in many ways is similar to the God revealed to us in the Bible. He would be the God who is above everything else, the God who created everything, and who is supreme. But God is seen as being someone very distant, someone who’s not particularly involved in day-to-day life.
There are myths which resemble the Bible’s account of the Fall, which portray God and man as being separated. Then they’ve populated this space between the supreme God and man with lots of other spiritual entities.
Some would call them deities, others would call them spirits, and you would then have the whole question of ancestors being in there. So there are a huge number of spiritual beings that inhabit this space between the supreme God and man, and it’s with these intermediary beings that they usually interact on a day-to-day basis.
Jim: What about their ancestors?
Ian: Many of these people groups attribute importance to ancestors. Once they have physically died they are still seen as existing, living on in the spirit world, more or less in the same location. So they are seen as still being part of the family, exerting an influence over family affairs. They need to be revered, placated and influenced through ceremonies and sacrifices. If they are not respected, one can expect things to go wrong in one’s life.
Jim: We have a very linear understanding of time. Europeans commonly comment about ‘African time’, but there is actually a reason for that in the African world view.
Ian: Africans didn’t measure time until Europeans brought hours and minutes into their lives. They didn’t really have a very developed notion of the future, so they’re not used to planning very much. Their notion of time would be more along natural cycles. So rather than saying to someone that you will meet them at 9 o’clock in the evening, you would say: ‘I’ll meet you when the cows are brought in from pasture.’ So it’s very much related to the natural cycle of events rather than measuring hours and minutes, and open to interpretation and flexibility. I could add that relationships trump timekeeping.
Jim: What about suffering? In a continent with much less healthcare and a subsistence economy, how do they handle suffering?
Ian: Every culture asks the question ‘Why?’ When we suffer we want to find the reason, we want to find someone to blame. In ATR the whole question of suffering is related to this spirit world which is inhabited by all these different beings. So, when one suffers a misfortune, you’re going to ask why, and there might be two directions of inquiry: ‘Have I offended a spiritual being? Have I offended an ancestor?’, or, ‘Is someone using sorcery against me?’
Jim: The growth of the church in Africa in the last 50 – 100 years is phenomenal, but within those churches the ATR worldview hasn’t really gone away. How does that show itself in the kind of churches that are ﬂourishing now across sub-Saharan Africa?
Ian: I think it shows itself firstly in the propensity of these churches to accept the Prosperity Gospel that has come over from America. ATR is about maintaining a balance in life, seeking to protect oneself from misfortune, and interacting with the gods in order to be prosperous, to have a good hunt or a good harvest. The Prosperity Gospel just transfers into that and says: ‘This is your way to be successful, rich and prosperous.’ So there is that vulnerability to seeing Christianity as just a different path to what they were seeking in the past.
Not only that, the role of pastors in African churches can also resemble the role of witch doctors or diviners in ATR. Someone will go to them to try and solve their problems, and will see them as people having spiritual power. When you get mixed up in charismatic gifts of prophecy and healing, the role between witch doctor and pastor is very much conflated. People go to a pastor and say: ‘What’s the reason for my problem? What’s the spiritual reason? Can you deal with it?’ So that is all part of the mix.
Jim: So how are you dealing with these issues in your radio programmes?
Ian:The question of blessing is an important one; it’s one that can be misunderstood. What’s the relationship between the Old Covenant and New Covenant? So we have this idea in ATR that the good life is prosperity, safety, security and health. That feeds into the Prosperity Gospel where again the good life is success, wealth and healing.
But when we look at the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be blessed by God, the good life is different. In Ephesians 1, Paul throws out this psalm of praise about what it means to be blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. There’s nothing material about it. It’s all about being forgiven, reconciled, adopted; having the Holy Spirit and this inheritance of eternal life. I think that’s what we need to get through, that you can be poor and be blessed if you have Christ, if you are in Christ, and there is nothing more precious than that. Then from that position of security, stability, we can try to work out all the other issues related to poverty and suffering and how our view of those things changes by being in Christ.
Jim: How have you covered these issues in your book, The Gospel in African Soil ?
Ian: It is a short book and I’ve tried briefly to address a number of issues. The first is to give an overview of ATR, to give us some understanding of that culture and world-view. Then I’ve tried to give a brief overview of Christian missions in Africa, and how different periods and different types of churches have related to ATR – the mission churches, then the African Independent Churches and more latterly the Pentecostal or Prosperity movement. Finally I throw out some thoughts on how I believe we can better teach Africans, to help them look at some of these issues and move towards a more discerning, solid, biblical faith.
Jim: And how Africans can teach us as well?
Ian: Yes. My fear was that I might come across as judgmental or patronising. I wondered what an African would write to us if he was writing a similar book. I wanted to ask ourselves in the West, what can we learn from Africans? Have we been too influenced by the Enlightenment in our understanding of Christianity? If Africans expect too much from God or expect the wrong things from God, do we expect too little from God? Has our view of God been diminished by the Enlightenment and our separation of the spiritual from the secular?
The Gospel in African Soil is available from Grace Baptist Mission price £2.50 inc. p&p www.gbm.org.uk 12 Abbey Close, Abingdon Oxon, OX14 3JD, T: 01235 520147 firstname.lastname@example.org