A Novel Path Beyond Colonial Christianity

Vince Bantu offers us a warning that I’m doing my best to take to heart:

“While the gospel has indeed spread at unprecedented rates over the last century, it is often a Westernized expression of Christianity that fails to adopt local and cultural norms and empower indigenous leadership. This dynamic only exacerbates the perception of Christianity as a Western religion. Christian organizations and denominations must not allow nearsighted enthusiasm engendered by increasing numbers of converts to derail the task of supporting indigenous, contextualized church growth.” (A Multitude of All Peoples, 225)

I keenly feel this concern. In many ways, the path I’m set on is well worn and treacherous. I am a white, Western Christian looking toward East Africa with the intent of being ‘helpful’. Even in this moment, writing that sentence has me shaking my head.

There are at least two parts of this that weigh heavily on me. On the one hand, it has become clear that the modern missions movement was tied up with overt political colonialism. European governments, in their dash for land, resources, and power at the expense of multitudes of peoples all over the world, both used and were used by Christian missionaries in their aims. On the other hand, the modern missions movement was also tied up in a more subtle religious colonialism which works on the assumption that European expressions of Christianity are the only valid forms of Christianity. This second concern is more of what Bantu has in mind.

Receiving a Troubled Legacy

Christian missions in the modern era therefore has a troubled legacy and we cannot assume that the errors lie only behind us. There are still stubborn patterns of superiority and prejudice. The idea that missions is defined by ‘the West’ going out to ‘the Rest’ is a clear expression of persistent issues in the Church. So the call to decolonize missions and Christianity carries on. We need to keep following the lead of people like Willie James Jennings and Harvey Kwiyani.

I also recognize that the colonizing factors of modern Christian mission can be overstated. Missions was carried on by flawed yet sincere people who did not always live up to their own best light, and, whose best light was only a dimmer representation of the true light itself. I’m quite grateful for the work of people like Lamin Sanneh and Emma Wild-Wood who have helped me see a fuller picture.

But I constantly need to reckon with the fact that I am stepping out onto dangerous ground. I shudder to think I could perpetuate the ugly patterns of the past. I in no way want to contribute to a Western captivity of Christianity or work to the detriment of indigenous forms of Christianity. But I cannot trust the fact that I do not want to to keep me from doing so. Our aim is see that the word of Christ dwells richly among all of us, not that the West dominates the ‘rest’ of us. We want to help see the gospel fully translated into every culture so that it can faithfully transmitted from every culture. The issue I continually face is that the place I see myself chipping in is located in perilous territory.

So what do I do?

I get as much help as possible and move forward as best as I can.

Lately I was reminded that novels can help. This is great news for me because I love reading and read quite a few novels. I just finished working through a series of recent Pulitzer Prize winners this summer and am moving now to read a bunch of novels by African writers.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o: A Grain of Wheat

I started with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat. It is the third of his novels that I’ve read and is easily my favourite so far. The novel is a great read for its own sake. Ngugi narrates a set of compelling characters as they come through the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and now face the time of Uhruru, that is, freedom from British rule. But I found it especially helpful as I look down my own dangerous path.

African novels help me to see and avoid the dangers of the colonialism which plagued the modern missions movement. I suppose that this is mostly about learning to listen well. These novels help me to hear and that means I can engage on better terms. Let me spell out a few ways that Ngugi helped me.

Feet on the Ground

A Grain of Wheat gave me a better sense of what it meant for people to come out from under British rule. Ngugi captures the complicated mix of hope and uneasiness as the modern political state of Kenya was born in 1963. Eagerness for British rule to end was confronted by uncertainties about the future, about where one’s loyalties should lie and how best to take care of one’s own. This was especially the case for those further removed from the main action and centres of power. What difference would Uhuru make in a village off the beaten path?

Of course, any place that ‘The Emergency’ (the colonial government’s response to the Mau Mau uprising) reached was relieved from the brutal conflict which precipitated the end of British rule. But scars remained in physical bodies and in communities as villages had been burnt down so that the government could relocate people and more easily keep them in sight and at hand. Further, what would people make of the fact that many scars could be traced back to those they now shared the name of “Kenyan” with?

You can get a lot of this in history books but a novel gives us something that lies beyond the reach of the textbook. A novel is fiction, but it is often more true to humanity than the non-fiction works which cover events and movements like these from a suitably academic distance. As Ngugi says in the foreword, although the plot is a fiction, “the situation and the problems are real – sometimes too painfully real for the peasants who fought the British yet who now see all that they fought for being put on one side.” Ngugi put me on the ground in the midst of people and so provides something precious.

Hearing the Bible in Foreign Terms

A Grain of Wheat also allowed me to get a better sense of what it meant for Christianity to arrive and take root via Western missionaries. The arrival of missionaries with their message, and then its acceptance, was tied up with some troubling realities:

“The few who were converted, started speaking a faith foreign to the ways of the land. They trod on sacred places to show that no harm could reach those protected by the hand of the Lord. Soon people saw the whiteman had imperceptibly acquired more land to meet the growing needs of his position. He had already pulled down the grass-thatched hut and erected a more permanent building. Elders of the land protested. They looked beyond the laughing face of the whiteman and suddenly saw a long line of other red strangers who carried, not the Bible, but the sword.” (p. 12)

And yet Christianity did take root. A Grain of Wheat is full of biblical allusions and quotations. The title itself is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 15:36 and each section is set off by another direct biblical reference. Almost every page of the book has something which points to or echoes the biblical tradition. But the place of the Bible in Ngugi’s novel is by no means straightforward.

On the one hand, the Bible seems to be a major impetus for the heroic actions of Kihika, whose death looms over the entire narrative. Kihika fought against British rule and the scripture passages which set off the book’s sections are said to be those which were underlined in Kihika’s own Bible. As he rallies people to the cause he is essentially a preacher, calling them to follow the example of Moses and Jesus. But the same biblical tradition provides the language for the betrayal which is the climax of the story. The Bible inhabits a vital but ambivalent position throughout A Grain of Wheat.

Further, readers from the Western tradition, like myself, will find the Bible used unfamiliar ways. There is a familiar anecdote about the arrival of Christianity in Africa in the modern period:

When the white man came to our country he had the Bible and we (Blacks) had the land. The white man said to us, “Let us pray.” After the prayer, the white man had the land and we had the Bible.

I’ve found this anecdote mentioned in all sorts of places but never with a source referenced. It appears in this novel (p. 15 for those wanting to find it) but I don’t suspect that Ngugi invents it here. A Grain of Wheat plays on the tension in that anecdote all the way through the book. The note about land being taken is probably prominent for us, but a key part of the equation is that Africans now have the Bible. I’ve even come across reports of Bishop Desmond Tutu making reference to this land-Bible exchange and then remarking that this is a good thing!

What happens when the Bible becomes an East African religious object? When it takes root in Sub-saharan soil? Again, we can read textbooks and handbooks which describe this process, but Ngugi’s novel gives us something distinct and valuable because we can see it in action on the ground.

Frankly, much of how the Bible is invoked throughout the novel will strike us as odd. Stories are aimed toward ends that leave us uncomfortable. Passages are brought to bear on issues in ways that puzzle us. We would probably accuse most of the people who use the Bible in the novel of taking it a long way out of context. At the same time, we have to recognize that the East African context is itself a lot closer to the settings which birthed the Bible than anything in our own lives. Philip Jenkins pointed out that Bible outside the West “carries a freshness and authenticity that adds vastly to its credibility as an authoritative source and guide for daily living” (The New Faces of Christianity (Oxford, 2006), 5). Those who have read Jenkins’ book will find a host of examples which illustrate his categories in Ngugi’s novel.

All of this helps us. Ngugi allows us to get a sense of how the biblical tradition is taken up in East Africa. The Bible has been woven into the fabric of peoples’ lives, forming distinct patterns, and he holds up the tapestry so we can have a look.

Proximity and Value

Finally, this novel further kindled my appreciation for traditions and societies that I only know at a distance. One thing that I love in African novels is the place of proverbs. Chinua Achebe’s works are a particularly rich source, but I found some in A Grain of Wheat as well.

Kahika, rallying people to the cause, rounds off his speech with a biblical allusion and a Swahili proverb:

“‘Watch ye and pray,’ Kihika said, calling on his audience to remember the great Swahili proverb: Kikulacho Kiko nguoni mwako.” (p. 15)

Besides the fascinating juxtaposition of Bible and tradition here, the proverb is a good one. It translates directly into something like: what eats you is in your clothes. I can’t quite get a straight answer for what it means, but that, after all, is part of the beauty of these traditions. It seems to be something like: your problems tend to come from closer to you than you think. That can be a suggestion to stop blaming others for your problems, but it can also be a warning to watch your back around even those you trust.

But when we encounter another culture, the differences often stand out starkly. It can be hard to appreciate things that are at times jarring to experience. Novels can help us to bypass some of our knee-jerk reaction by showing us other cultures on their own terms. The situations and structures that Ngugi narrates are, of course, normal for him. The result is that his presentation of them cancels out some of the interference that our own impressions tend to create. It facilitates a much more empathetic reading for outsiders like myself. Ngugi brought me closer than I could get on my own and so gave me room to value what could only have stood out as ‘different’.

After finishing A Grain of Wheat I read Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s Coming to Birth. This is another beautiful novel and Macgoye lays out the humanity of her characters without flinching. Her novel gave me a window into the workings of families and especially the exalted place of child-bearing in East Africa. I don’t pretend to understand, or even really like, all that I saw in her novel, but looking through Macgoye’s eyes gives me access to aspects of this culture in a very human way.


First and foremost, you should read African novels for their own sake. The continent has produced some of the finest novelists we have and has taken the form to new and exciting places. F. Abiola Irele argues that even though the novel not a traditional African form, it now has a privileged place in Africa: “In short, the novel has acquired today a cultural significance that was once the exclusive province of the oral narrative” (“Introduction: Perspectives on the African Novel” in The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel (Cambridge, 2009), 1). The African novel now stands in the place of the epics and sagas which formed the backbone of many a people. But these stories also light a lamp which can help enable us to step into these cultures without tripping and tumbling into the deep, and deeply fraught, footsteps of our predecessors.

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One thought on “A Novel Path Beyond Colonial Christianity

  1. Steve Horton

    Thank you for these insights. It is indeed troubling when we see the message about Christ being subverted by the nonsense of a political or selfish messages. I read a book about Francis Champlain and his efforts to discover the Americas while being respectful of the peoples who were living in the land. There was so much tension between his efforts and the work of others. The author David Hackett Fisher has written the kind of history book I like to read – full of facts in a narrative style. For Champlain he saw himself implementing the message of God in a way that was a demonstration of who God is. The angst you were going through reflects some of Champlain’s.


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