by Jim Harries
Wipf & Stock, 2015
—Reviewed by, Bob Bagley, Africa area director for Global Partners, the missions division of the Wesleyan Church
Western mission agencies and secular aid and development practitioners have been working hard in Africa for decades, but seemingly with little discernable progress. The continent is deeply plagued by widespread poverty, frequent outbreaks of unrest and violence, extensive corruption, issues of dependency, and a church described by many as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” With such a significant investment of money, time, and lives, why aren’t things different?
In his book, Secularism and Africa, prolific author Jim Harries seeks to provide an answer based on insights from philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and over twenty years of experience as a missionary in Africa (Zambia and Kenya). According to Harries, the situation in Africa has resulted from the failure of westerners to fully appreciate and account for the foundational aspects of African worldview resulting in misunderstanding and misinterpretation of their well-intentioned efforts.
In fact, they may have inadvertently helped to affirm and reinforce that worldview instead of allowing it to be challenged by biblical Christianity. Westerners’ contribution to the widespread acceptance of the prosperity gospel is a case in point.
African cultures are monistic at their core. That is, no distinction is made between the secular and the spiritual. Everything that happens has spiritual causation. Harries maintains that a monistic worldview is antithetical to sustainable, self-initiated, and self-directed development.
Secularism is dualistic and relegates the spiritual realm to a position of irrelevance and insignificance. At its extreme, secularism may view religion and spirituality as a distraction and hindrance to development and advancement. Africans, however, reinterpret the efforts of secular agencies from within their monistic worldview and seek to engage with them based on that understanding.
Christianity is dualistic as well, but not dichotomistic like secularism; however, missionary efforts frequently approach ministry from a secular frame of reference. For example, Harries strongly criticizes holistic missions for being much more secular in approach than being biblical, thus negating their ‘spiritual’ ministry by their ‘secular’ projects.
Harries believes that a clear proclamation of biblical truth is the solution to the African dilemma. Western missionaries can contribute to this if they are willing to practice vulnerable mission—that is, to engage only using indigenous languages (because worldview cannot be separated from language) and only using locally available resources (to avoid the trap of equating material wellbeing with spiritual power.)
Some will find Harries’ logic lacking at points, while others will object that his solution is too simplistic and unrealistic in the diversity that makes up modern Africa. Nonetheless, anyone responsible for ministries within Africa needs to wrestle with Harries’ contentions. How can we engage in disciple making in Africa that results in radical transformation at the worldview level?
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EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 3. Copyright © 2017 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.