Do Things Fall Apart When Jesus Meets an Indigenous Culture?

Traditional Igbo white-faced mask, twentieth century, eastern Nigeria. Its crest bears a depiction of a crucified Christ flanked by two angels.

I recently subscribed to Indigenous Jesus, a blog whose purpose is to celebrate the Christian art produced by nonwestern cultures. Its author, who has a background in anthropology and studio art, encourages his readers to learn from other cultures’ views and experiences of Jesus, rather than putting Jesus into a box, saying that he can only be experienced this way, or pictured that way. He warns Christians, and missionaries especially, to be careful not to conflate Christianity with Western culture. The two are completely separate; the one does not necessitate the other.

. . . when Jesus told his followers to ‘make disciples of every nation’ (Matthew 28:19), he wanted these disciples to follow him with all of their hearts, minds, souls and strength (Mark 12:30)—not a foreign culture. Therefore, the Gospel should be given to every nation (ethnos) so that they might follow Jesus in culturally relevant ways of their own choosing, in order to express their hearts’ praise to him.

The blog puts forth the following questions at the outset:

Indigenous visual arts can take on many forms: ritual objects, iconic images, narrative paintings, etc. But what forms do these objects take when indigenous people reflect on Jesus and the Gospel? Which facets of Jesus resonate most in their hearts, and what do they see in him that I miss (and how do they express it artistically)?

In movies, novels, and textbooks, the missionaries are almost always the bad guys—arrogant, pushy, insensitive, and destroyers of native culture. It’s true that many missionaries were and maybe still are that way, which is deeply shameful. When did Christianization become synonymous with Westernization? Where in the Bible did Jesus ask his followers to give up their cultural identities? (As I recall, he affirmed people’s cultural identities by not requiring the Gentiles to be circumcised or to follow Jewish law in order to become his followers.)

Igbo church service

Mass is celebrated monthly in the Igbo language at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sacramento, California. Well over half of all Igbo Christians are Catholic.

But what elements of a culture (beliefs, values, practices) need to be purged in order to bring that culture in line with what the gospel commands? What values are actually based on Scripture, and which are merely culturally (and thus arbitrarily) determined? Can the same pagan rituals be used to call on and worship the God of Christianity? How can people be expected to give up their cultural heritage, which is so essential to their sense of self? What solace does Christ offer to the convert who is disowned by family, friends, and nation?

I’m only just starting to ask these questions, so I certainly cannot answer them yet. But I do know that throughout its history, Christianity, in its attempt to survive in the face of persecution, has oftentimes met with and absorbed elements of other religions and mainstream cultures to make it what it is today. Now Christianity finds itself on the flip side, in the mainstream, and minority cultures are forced to decide whether to adapt, and if so, to what degree.

Chinua Achebe

Famed novelist Chinua Achebe was raised in Nigeria by Igbo Christian parents. He said in a 1991 interview that he prefers the indigenous religion of his ancestors, though, because it’s “far more artistically satisfying” in its ambivalence.

I posted a photo of that Igbo mask at the top because the Igbo people of Nigeria are one such people group that was greatly affected by British colonial rule and evangelization. They eagerly embraced the Christianity that was presented to them, which contributed to the crumbling of many of their treasured practices and traditions, much to the lament of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I could not find what this particular mask was used for (traditional uses include religious rituals, secret society initiations, public festivals, and honoring the dead), but I can only imagine that it was used for some form of Christian worship, which likely involved music and dance. I think it’s beautiful that the Igbo people found a way, through the mask, to express both their cultural and Christian identities.

The meeting of Christianity with indigenous cultures is definitely a topic I’d like to study in depth, and one that involves research in the areas of history (especially the history of colonization), politics, sociology, missiology, and cultural studies. (Ah, if only I had the money to be a grad student. . . .) If any of you guys have any books, journals, or articles to recommend on the topic, or any related ideas to share, please let me know.

Also, take a look at this Igbo gospel music medley, performed by Chinedu Nwadike. The first song, “Jehovah Kulie,” is particularly interesting, as it seems to be a prayer asking God to chase away all the evil spirits—the spirit who sucks blood in the night, the spirit who causes childlessness, the spirit who causes confusion, etc. So while these people carry over some beliefs from their native religion (namely, the belief in oppressive spirits), they recognize Jehovah as the most powerful, most holy, and most supreme spirit—their “all in all,” “the only hope I have.” They also praise the power of “the Son” (Jesus); they ask him to “take your place in my life” and to cover them in his blood, a reference to his sacrificial death on the cross. Based on the songs I sampled on YouTube, it seems the Igbo people (or at least the ones publishing these videos) see Jesus primarily as a mighty defender and protector who fights on his children’s behalf; he chases away all that oppresses us and thereby frees us from bondage. Beautiful.

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One Response to Do Things Fall Apart When Jesus Meets an Indigenous Culture?

  1. JIMOH ABDUL JABBA DAVID says:

    THE WHITE MAN CAME, INTRODUCE IS RELIGION AND GAVE US THE BIBLE, TOLD US THAT OUR ARTS AND TRADITION IS FERTISH AND THAT WE SHOULD DO AWAY WITH IT. WHAT FOLLOWED? WITH THEIR GUNS WE WERE CAPTURED AND TAKEN AWAY AS SLAVES TO WORK THEIR PLANTATION. THE AFRICAN PEOPLE HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN GOD ALMIGHTY BEFORE THE ADVENT OF THE WHITE MAN. THE YORUBAS IN NIGERIA CALLS HIM OLORUN OLODUMARE, WHILE THE IGBOS CALL HIM CHINEKE AND THE HAUSAS CALLS HIM HUBANGIDI. MY SUBMMISSIONS:: SINCE THE INTRODUCTION OF THE WHITE MANS RELIGION AND CIVILIZATION, THE AFRICAN ARTS, TRADITION AND CULTURES HAS BEEN GREATLY SUBDUED AND WE ARE ALMOST LOOSING OUR IDENTITY AS BLACK PEOPE. THERE I S MORAL DECADENT IN THE SOCIETY AND CRIME RATE IS GETTING HIGHER EVERY DAY. THESE WAS NEVER IN THE CHARACTERS OF OUR ANCESTORS, WE WHER LIVING A COMMUNAL WAYS OF LIFE, WE WERE OUR BROTHERS KEEPERS AND WE WOULD HAVE DEVELOPED AT OUR OWN PASTE CARRYING ALONG OUR CULTURAL VALUES.

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