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Prosperity Gospel in Zambia: The Problems of Engaging African Theology Using English

In this review essay, missionary-scholar Jim Harries challenges Western assumptions used to decry the prosperity gospel as it is taught and believed in Africa.

Hermen Kroesbergen, ed., In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

In reviewing a book about Africa written in English, one is tempted to ignore constant category errors being made. I have chosen in this review not to ignore them.

The contributors to this book have embarked on an impossible, but nevertheless important task. Impossible, I suggest, because one cannot effectively evaluate African thinking using English. Important, because the issue they address is critical and topical. The book is an outcome of debates that occurred at Justo Mwale Theological University in Lusaka, Zambia, in 2012.

My own background affects my interpretation. As a young man, I was much influenced by Calvinism. I continue to love Calvin’s teaching. Yet, I struggle to see how it can fit in Africa. I lived in Zambia from 1988 to 1991. Since 1993, I have lived in Western Kenya. Reformed churches in my home area in Kenya (I am familiar with one or two, there may be more I do not know about) have been swamped by Pentecostalism. It is hard to see how a reformed church can thrive, except through foreign donations, which would then implicate them in a kind of prosperity teaching that this text sees itself as critiquing.

Chilenje gives us a run-down of the kinds of difficulties that the West has with prosperity teaching. In the following chapter, Zulu sees positive things in prosperity teaching, rejecting the idea that it is only a pathology. Ellington tells us that correct analysis of biblical texts would solve the problem of prosperity teaching. Banda, D. suggests that we shouldn’t attack prosperity unless or until we have a better alternative. Then Banda L. suggests that the best way to resolve the rift between reformed and Pentecostal churches, is through dialogue. Kroesbergen struggles not to condemn prosperity teaching as sheer folly, by looking at ways in which it enables African dignity. Soko sees prosperity teaching and Pentecostalism in general as a response to globalisation. Kroesbergen-Kamps realises that in Zambian minds, Christianity and modernism are integrally linked. Togarasei concludes the book, by suggesting that what prosperity-oriented Zambians are looking for is not flagrant wealth, but merely bread on the table.

Many hours were needed to edit and proofread this book (xi). This indicates a starting difficulty – the expectation that citizens of African countries should produce work of a literary standard that pleases Western scholars. The book presents many respectable avenues of exploration of prosperity teaching in Zambia. I very much appreciate the efforts made by its authors.

Be careful with the words you use: Supernatural is a Western category, from Western positivistic dualism.

A foundational error made to different degrees by all authors in this compendium, is a basic confusion between Western and African worldviews. It is this very consequential if sometimes concealed situation, that I want to concentrate on in this review. The authors presuppose in their writing, in other words, that Zambian people have a ‘modern’ dualistic worldview. This presupposition being largely incorrect disqualifies a great deal of the book’s content. Most of my critique below is simply examples that point to this fundamental concern. In my view, this basic error is extremely widespread in English language literature about Africa. It might be considered unfair for me to point to errors in this book, that are being made throughout the literature. The fact that this book has stimulated me to do such, should perhaps be taken in its favour! Perhaps it represents the proverbial straw that breaks the back of the camel on this issue?

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Category: Fall 2018, Ministry

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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