Is ‘Africa’ really rife with a false gospel? Here’s one version of the story:
As we’ve seen, however, examples like Lizzy and Mwakatwila mean we can’t automatically equate prosperity talk with ‘prosperity gospel’. Tanzanian headspace is concerned with everyday questions, and Tanzanian Christians are connecting those questions with the parts of the Bible geared towards the everyday world (the wisdom literature). There is more going on here. Here are some further reflections.
What we have here is not a Western import but a local Christian tradition engaging with the Bible from its own starting place. This tradition is locally driven, in conversation with the Bible, with culture, and with local Christianity itself. In other words, this tradition has its own critical and reflective dimensions. There are certainly Western influences, but it’s not as if these exist in a vacuum, or are accepted unthinkingly.
As for what’s actually happening inside this local tradition, Tamie and I are only beginning to get a glimpse of insight. What we’re acutely aware of is that Westerners without local language have barely any access to this tradition. When we observe this tradition in English, it loses its local nuances and dialogues. It might sound like prosperity gospel to us Westerners, but we’re missing basic local cues. In other words, this tradition may or may not be closely related to the prosperity gospel, but we have no real way of knowing. Without local language, we miss local culture, so we are only capable of viewing Tanzanian Christian tradition on our own terms, in our own categories. It may be impossible for us to view Tanzanian Christianities as anything but a caricature — and the reality is inevitably more complicated and sophisticated. (For more on these sort of complications, see my series on vulnerable mission.)
Like I said, there are some Western influences in the mix. As I write, Mwakatwila’s Twitter account follows two people, one of whom is Joyce Meyer. But if American preachers are popular in Tanzania, it is for Tanzanian reasons. Tanzanians do not share exactly the same questions as Americans, so Tanzanians are approaching Joyce Meyer from their own starting point. On top of that, Tanzanians will hear Joyce Meyer differently, and will make their own local applications of her teaching. The fact that some Tanzanians are talking about Joyce Meyer might not mean what we anticipate. In any event, it’s a massive cross-cultural faux pas to attribute her popularity in Tanzania to ‘uneducated pastors’, ‘uninformed Christians’, and American money. It’s also unfair. Being uneducated (according to American categories!) doesn’t make someone mindless and passive.
As we’ve seen, Tanzanians are concerned about everyday life, so it’s not surprising to find Tanzanians exploring teaching about the day-to-day world — about business principles and health and family dynamics and other dimensions of stewardship and wellbeing. Strange as it may seem, some American preachers have a more natural cross-cultural appeal in Tanzania because of the topics they focus on. Neither Joyce Meyer nor John Piper are known for promoting contextualisation, but one of them is apparently more well known in Africa than the other — and it would be crazy to expect Tanzanians to listen to someone like John Piper if John Piper does not appear to be addressing Tanzanian questions.
Drawing a few threads together then, what does all this amount to? Tanzanians are talking a lot about prosperity, but whatever that means, we should seek to understand it first in terms of local agency rather than outside influence. Tanzanian Christianities are not tied to the thought-world of Western missionaries, and we see this reflected in local theologising and traditioning, even if it’s in terms unfamiliar to us. The popularity of prosperity-style teaching could (in a messy way no doubt) reflect genuine spiritual growth in Tanzania.
These are preliminary reflections based on our limited experience and Swahili repertoire. We haven’t understood all of what we’ve heard, and what we’ve understood is not entirely clear to us. But this is the vibe we’re getting so far, and it’s another challenge to our perceptions of ‘Africa’ and majority world Christianity.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.