Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nigeria, Christianity, and the Elimination of History

Associated Press reporter Dulue Mbachu presents his account (via the Philadelphia Inquirer) of how newly converted Pentecostals in Nigeria are engaging in the destruction of shrines, carved figures, and other iconographical items from their past traditional religious practices. Unsurprisingly, Mbachu finds that the result is a negotiation between old and new forms of worship and belief:

“Most converts are in constant tension over how much of the old beliefs can be incorporated into their new faith, said Isidore Uzoatu, a specialist in the history of Christianity in Africa affiliated with Nnamdi Azikiwe University in southeastern Nigeria.

‘Where the older Catholic and Anglican denominations are more tolerant, the Pentecostals reflect more strictly the idea of a jealous God that would brook no rival,’ said Uzoatu.”

Having previously volunteered for a vacation Bible school class that centered on missionary efforts, I can attest that Southern Baptists have made the same theological arguments as Pentecostals (along with other theologically conservative churches and denominations): any “rival” to God is idolatrous, and therefore an evil that is best “destroyed.” In Africa, this destruction is, as Mbachu indicates, often quite literal. Yet the byproduct is a costly elimination of history that is otherwise incredibly difficult to preserve and document. While most modern Western historiography (particularly American history) can largely utilize written primary source material to clarify large-scale trends and small-scale events, African historiography is more reliant on oral history, art, and other cultural artifacts. The Pentecostals’ post-conversion actions therefore represent a dual loss: on the one hand, items that help comprise their historical memory, and on the other hand, the types of sources that are critical for documenting history on a larger scale.

In saying this, it is not my intention to evaluate the other cultural (as well as theological) elements that are a part of missionary practices like what Mbachu discusses. Rather, I simply find that the elimination of any culture’s history carries detrimental consequences, even if the members of that culture wish to escape their past in some form or another.

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