Review: Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. New York: Penguin, 1994 (originally published 1959).

Summary: First of a trilogy portraying the confrontation of Igbo tribal culture and Christian missions and British colonialism.

Chinua Achebe described his youth in Nigeria as growing up “at the crossroads of cultures,” speaking Igbo at home, and English at school. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe portrays the initial intersection of these two cultures. He does so through a rising tribal leader in the village of Umuofia, Okonkwo. The story unfolds in three parts.

The first simultaneously develops the character of Okonkwo, and the sophistication of Igbo culture. Okonkwo grows up in reaction to a “devil may care” father, Unoka, who gains no titles, dies in debt, and in the Evil Forest of a swelling in the stomach, left unburied. Okonkwo strives for a different destiny. He wins a legendary wrestling match, is successful in farming yams, the staple crop, acquires three wives, and two of the four titles leaders in the village may obtain. He is a rising tribal leader.

Factors inward and outward keep unraveling this vision. He becomes the adoptive father of a hostage boy, Ikemefuna, who represents the qualities his own eldest son, Nwoye, lacks. Eventually, the tribal elders decree his death. Okonkwo is given the opportunity to not participate, yet he ends up striking the death blow, to not be thought weak This act shatters his relationship with Nwoye, who had also become close with Ikemefuna. Meanwhile, he has a daughter, Ezinma, who when near death, he heals and has the character he hoped for in his sons. The first part ends with a second death, when Okonkwo fires his gun during a wedding celebration. The gun explodes, a sixteen year old boy dies, and he is forced into exile with his family.

Part one also describes tribal life, its social customs, its healing practices, its commerce, its ways of resolving conflict, and the ways weddings are negotiated. It is obviously very different from European culture, and their are elements that would not be understood by outsiders, like exposing twin babies in the Evil Forest. But it is sophisticated, providing ways for men and women, and neighboring tribes to navigate their relationships with each other.

Part Two describes Okonkwo’s life in exile. He is supported by his friend Obierika, rebuked and encouraged by the members of his mother’s family, and nourished on the vision of how he will re-establish himself when he returns to Umuofia. It is during this time that Christian missionaries arrive in Mbanta, where he is living in exile. For the most part, they are an object of derision, except for the outcasts who are raised up. More significantly, the alienation of Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye is completed when Nwoye converts. Achebe describes the change that occurs in Nwoye:

“It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow.. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul–the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed”

The church remains on the margins in Mbanta while Okonkwo throws a farewell feast in grand style.

Things are different back in Umuofia. There the mission work and the British who have come with them have made much greater inroads. The Reverend Brown, realizing that the traditional beliefs are strong, opens a school and a hospital. Tribal sons learn to read and write the language of the English and learn the stories of Christianity as they do. The medicine of the hospital is more powerful than tribal remedies in healing. The local trading post pays high prices for their palm oil. Their courts and officials establish English laws that resolve conflicts differently, and hang those who take lives. Okonkwo sees how these changes are undermining the tribe and tries to mobilize resistance, particularly when a different missionary takes a less irenic and a more culturally insensitive approach. As the title suggests, “things fall apart,” both for Okonkwo, the tragic hero, and the tribe.

Achebe’s portrayal helps us understand that the Igbo were not “savages,” but had a rich culture. Yet he also doesn’t dismiss the compelling character of the Christian message, particularly as it is portrayed in the words and deeds of Brown, who is highly respected, and respectfully discusses theology with tribal leaders who disagree with him. He gains through goodness. More troubling is the partnership between the missionaries and the colonial power, determined to subdue the tribes to colonial rule. The power of this novel is that it doesn’t resort to a simple binary of saying tribal life was good, the coming of Christianity bad, or the reverse. Rather, he portrays both the nobility and and fallibility of the people and institutions in both cultures, and the transition from one way of life to another, welcome by some, wrenching for others. Most of all, he helps us see all this from the perspective of the supposedly “primitive tribes” who were “pacified,” the title language used by the colonial commissioner for the book he was writing. He helps us see that these tribes were far from primitive, and that their encounter with colonialism was far from peaceful.

Review: Serving God in a Migrant Crisis

serving god in a migrant crisis

Serving God in a Migrant CrisisPatrick Johnstone with Dean Merrill (foreword by Stephen Bauman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Concisely sets forth the scope of our present-day global refugee crisis, how as Christians we might think about all this, and several levels of action steps we may take.

We are facing an unprecedented refugee crisis. Corrupt regimes. Violent gangs. Climate change driven migration. Religious persecution. Ethnic cleansing. All these causes and more are leading people to do something no one wants or easily chooses to do–leave home, sometimes paying large sums to shady figures, with no certainty of finding refuge on the other end.

Patrick Johnstone is well known to many as the author of successive editions of Operation World, a guide that has helped many of us pray, or even be led to go to parts of the world and people groups who have not heard the Christian message. His study of these people groups made him keenly aware of these unprecedented movements of people, and the possibility that the very people we hope to reach with the Christian message may be on our doorstep. The question is not, how will we reach them, but will we welcome them?

Johnstone begins by inviting us to connect with our own immigrant histories and by drawing our attention to the one who we follow, who was himself a refugee as a child. In the first part, he explores the unprecedented human tide of immigrants, one out of every 122 on the planet. He turns to fears real and imagined and separates fact from fiction. Then he looks at the factors driving the refugee and migrant crisis, arguing that there is no end in sight and that more developed nations will be dealing with this for some time to come.

In the second part of the book, he focuses on what we need to know. First of all, he helps us understand why people leave their homes, often taking great financial and safety risks to do so. He reminds us that the biblical story is an immigrant story. God even causes some immigration. Our savior was an immigrant. Immigrants are not the “other,”  but rather are people who are “one of us.” Johnstone asks whether our immigration discussions ought to begin with policies and legalities, or with a concern for the humanity of the immigrant. Whatever we, and our nations do, it will have some kind of profound effect on the lives of real people, many of them among the most defenseless in the world. On the other hand, we often do not consider is that these people may turn out not as a problem to be solved, but a blessing. They provide needed workers in low-birthrate countries, some are fellow believers who rejuvenate the faith of complacent Christians, and some of our most respected scientists, political leaders, and business people have been immigrants.

So, what should we do? That is the concern of the final chapters in the third part of the book. He begins by suggesting five starting points:

  1. Appreciate the strategic opportunity. God is bringing the world to us!
  2. Recognize and admit our past mistakes.
  3. Become more sensitive to other cultures.
  4. Believe that God truly cares about migrants.
  5. Start praying.

This last point literally struck home. The author quotes a Ghanaian theologian who participated in African immigrant revivals, praying for the awakening of the West in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago. I live in Columbus and my church hosts a Ghanaian congregation. It made me wonder if some of those worshiping in our church building were among those the theologian was praying with. It makes me wonder if we are the ones being blessed by their presence and what they might teach us about prayer and spiritual warfare in the post-Christian West.

He then concludes with four action levels: the individual, the church, what Christian agencies can do and what the global body of Christ can do. This lasts challenges us both in speaking to ourselves about the need at hand, and speaking to our governments.

What was so refreshing about this book is that it stepped aside from media circus and the political fray and centered the discussion on the reality of the human crisis behind the policy debates and the biblical convictions and dispositions of the heart of people who follow Jesus the refugee. While not ignoring the important role Christians can have in challenging the government, it also focused on the critical role Christians can play in their home church communities by hosting refugees, welcoming immigrants into our homes, networking them into work opportunities, and sharing our faith with them.

This last phrase will be a problem for some. Certainly, we should do all that we can for the immigrant whether they believe or not. But Johnstone makes a telling observation that comes out of his years of work among many people groups: “Immigrants will think it odd if you don’t introduce your faith. They will wonder if you are ashamed of your beliefs for some reason.” This reminds me that the greatest tragedy of yielding to the fears and insecurities that feed political bases and media ratings; is that in so doing we miss the opportunity to love the alien and the stranger, see them become friends, and perhaps witness their turning to new life in Christ. What others see as a crisis and a problem, Johnstone recognizes as a great opportunity. Will we?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Gods That Fail

Gods that fail

Gods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Summary: A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross.

This is a book with a global vision. It explores the failure of the gods of both western secularity and materialism and eastern spirituality. The author sees a common element in these–the effort to obtain power through some form of technique, whether of science and technology, or economics, or the techniques of spirituality to manipulate the powers of the spiritual world. Yet these gods invariably disappoint and lead both to personal futility and the dehumanization of others. But the author is not merely setting his sights on the failures of others. He also sees these forms of idolatry as vitiating the mission of the church. He writes:

“The book’s subtitle is deliberately ambiguous. Does Christian mission involve a confrontation with the ‘idols of our time?’ Or does Christian mission, at least in some prominent aspects, unconsciously disseminate forms of idolatry around the globe? Or are large sections of the Christian Church so riddled with idolatry that their missionary vision has been paralysed? The burden of this book can be summed up by saying that all three of these questions require the emphatic answer: ‘Yes’ “(p. 25).

The book both commends the biblical narrative as one that renders a true and compelling alternative to the dehumanizing gods of modern idolatry and serves as a ringing call to Christians east and west to recognize and repent of their own idolatries and captivities to the false gods of their cultures.

The author is uniquely suited to this task. He is a native of Sri Lanka, educated at the University of London. He serves as the international Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a global partnership of over 150 student movements on every continent. His account is a model of fluent, sweeping and yet incisive analysis.

Following an introduction laying out his thesis and plan of argument, Ramachandra turns to the biblical account of creation, taking both scientists and Christians alike to task for the focus on questions of how and when and totally overlooking the narratives assertions of Who the Creator is and his relation to humankind and the rest of creation. This leads to a consideration of evil and suffering in the book of Job, the idolatry implicit in the answers of Job’s comforters, and the reality that God gives no direct answer to Job’s question because evil and suffering are in fact a “monstrous absurdity” in God’s good world.

Chapter 4 turns from biblical narrative to the critiques of religion posed by Marx and Freud, which Ramachandra actually sees as a telling critique on what Christian Smith has called “moral, therapeutic deism”. Just as Israel succumbed to the deities of the surrounding nations that provided fertility and prosperity while allowing them to ignore the poor, Ramachandra sees the critiques of Marx and Freud justly exposing bourgeois religion that domesticates God and is unconcerned about injustice. The god these atheists attack is one Christians have no business defending. Chapter 5 goes on to consider the violence of idols beginning with the mental formations behind things like money in which we embue things and concepts with power that come to dominate us. Ramachandra trenchantly illustrates this in his discussion of “development”, challenging our western notions of unfettered growth and what constitutes “development” which others might consider “regression.” He concludes this chapter with a return to Genesis showing how the chaos of the flood and the confusion and disintegration of Babel are inevitable results.

Chapters 6 and 7 concern science and reason as modernist projects and the assaults of post-modern anti-science and unreason upon these projects. In both chapters, Ramachandra demonstrates the rootedness of objective truth in a Creator and the false dichotomy between reason and revelation that need not set science, reason, and Christian faith against one another.

The concluding chapter considers the stark contrast of the crucified God of Christianity who does not cling to power but dies at the hands of power to give life to a humanity in thrall. It is when Christians renounce nationalisms, and economic and political power, to walk in the way of the cross and the hope of the resurrection that they are most true to their message and are able to speak most compellingly about the true God in a world of idols.

This work is a revision of a work originally published 20 years ago. The author notes that the most significant change is switching chapters 2 and 4 in the original book, which he believed improved the flow of argument. He brings some examples and statistics up to date but has not substantively re-written the book. And it is here where there might be some criticism of the work in that it reflects an engagement with post-modernism and its assault on science and reason that perhaps is far more prevalent in the social sciences and political theory in the years since and receives little treatment here.

One of the challenges for all thoughtful people, and certainly Christians, is to “understand the present time” (Romans 13:11, NIV). Without such reflection, and sometimes, the self-criticism that results, we may easily be swept up in the cultural captivities of the day and unwittingly give our worship to creations of our own hands. This book is a clarion call that can cut through the clouds of our murky thinking and cultural blind spots. I welcome this revised edition, which could not come at a more timely moment, at least for the North American church of which I am a part.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”