Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Rebirth is Real

Non sequitur: (literally, “it does not follow”). An inference that does not follow from the premises. For example, “As a Houston Texans fan, I want the Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl” is a non sequitur. So is, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.”

But the latter is the title of an editorial in the New York Times by Matthew Parris (12/27/07), who grew up in Africa and recently came to a surprising conclusion about what that continent needs. After traveling there recently as part of a charitable relief program supported by the Times, he confides:

"[This trip] inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But traveling in Malawi (where he grew up) refreshed another belief, too, one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes peoples’ hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good."

Parris describes how he used to applaud the practical work of mission churches in Africa while pitying that salvation was “part of the package.” He would allow that “if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.”

But in his subsequent travels to Africa, Parris has not been able to escape the conclusion that Christian faith does something inside people. Of particular importance in Africa, it liberates people from the “crushing tribal groupthink” and the “whole structure of rural African thought” that “grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity” and results in a kind of defeatist passivity.

"We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had Africans working for us who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall."

Christians sometimes lose confidence that the gospel really is “the power of salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16); we can even be ashamed of the enormity of its promises. We are tempted to concentrate on more “tangible” kinds of outreach and help. But there is no substitute for the inner transformation that rebirth in Christ brings.


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