THE OLDEST CHRISTIANITY
Considering the central role of healing and exorcism in Southern churches, it is tempting to look for older pagan roots, and to ask just how the emerg¬ing congregations justify their ideas. Of course, Southern churches thrive because of their appeal to distinctively African or Latin American ideas— their ability to work within traditional culture—but these examples of accommodation do not amount to a betrayal of the faith, still less to syncretism. The rising churches can plausibly claim to be following abundantly documented precedents from the founding ages of Christianity. The Bible itself so readily supports a worldview based on spirits, healing, and exorcism. When Jesus was asked if he was the Messiah, he did not give an abstruse theological lecture but pointed at the tangible signs and wonders that were being done in his name. “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” When Paul took the Christian faith to Macedonia, the first known mission into Europe, he was responding to a vision received in a dream.
In understanding what can look like the oddities of Third World churches, it is helpful to recall one basic and astonishing fact, which is that they take the Bible very seriously indeed. To quote Richard Shaull, “In Pentecostalism, poor and broken people discover that what they read in the Gospels is happening now in their midst.” For Southern Christians, and not only for Pentecostals, the apostolic world as described in the New Testament is not just a historical account of the ancient Levant, but an ever-present reality open to any modern believer, and that includes the whole culture of signs and wonders. Passages that seem mildly embarrassing for a Western audience read completely differently, and relevantly, in the new churches of Africa or Latin America. As David Martin remarks of another region in which this type of faith has spread in recent years, “The Pentecostal emphasis in Korea is really to see ‘The Kingdom’ both future and present in the signs of the Kingdom, especially healing and the ‘baptism of the Spirit.”
Against this background, we need to think exactly what we mean when we say that a given person “believes in” the Bible and its stories. It is possible to believe in the stories recorded as if they are literally correct narratives of events that really occurred, but this is quite different from seeing them as applicable to present-day conditions. In Southern Pentecostal and independent churches, though, belief goes much farther, to the stage of participation in a present event. It has been said of Prophet William Wade Harris that after his conversion, “it was no longer a ques¬tion of what Moses did, or what Elijah did, or the words and works of Jesus as reported in the Bible. It became a question of involvement—as with the ancestors, the living dead—with Moses, with Elijah, with the archangel Gabriel, and supremely with Jesus.
For many new believers, stories of miracles and healing are so self-evidently crucial to the early Christian message that some suspicion must attach to any church that lacked these signs of power. As one Old Testament passage complains, “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” To quote a modern follower of the Shona prophet Johane Masowe, “When we were in these synagogues [the European churches] we used to read about the works of Jesus Christ . . . cripples were made to walk and the dead were brought to life . . . evil spirits driven out . . . That was what was being done in Jerusalem. We Africans, however, who were being instructed by white people, never did anything like that . . . We were taught to read the Bible, but we ourselves never did what the people of the Bible used to do.”
Parallels with ancient Christianity are just as clear when we consider prophetic leadership. In most Western cultures, the word “prophecy” is much debased from its original meaning. Today, a prophet is basically a fortune-teller, whose reputation stands or falls by the accuracy of his or her predictions. For the world of the first century, though, a prophet was someone who spoke the inspired word of God, which might or might not be relevant to current worldly concerns. Often, then and now, the prophetic inspiration was conveyed by means of material symbols. Isaiah Shembe received his divine call when he was burned by lightning, leaving a scar on his thigh. The vitality of prophecy in the contemporary South means that the rising churches can read biblical accounts with far more understanding and sensitivity than Northern Christians can. In the book of Acts, prophecy was a sign of the true church. And if that was true two thousand years ago, why should it not be true of a man or woman today, Kimbangu or a Shembe? Prophetic powers are exactly what Jesus promised his disciples, without any caveat that these gifts might expire with the end of the first century.
Let me know what you think :-)