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

Chilenje mentions a Zambian belief in ‘supernatural power’ (4). Supernatural is a Western category, that arises from a Western positivistic dualism, in which physical materiality is considered ‘real’, and what is not physical, sometimes known as the spiritual, when it impinges on the real in certain ways, ‘supernatural’. Zambian people never experienced the enlightenment or reformation and are not known to be dualists, so why are they credited with belief in the ‘supernatural’?

Chilenje tells us that the bible considers ‘healthful living’ from, amongst others, a psychological standpoint (14). Yet, psychology is a post-enlightenment category; is it right to read post-enlightenment categories back into the bible? This seems to be eisegesis writ-large. It is particularly ironic, as Ellington (below) accuses Zambians of reading their own cultures into the bible.

Many of our authors presuppose that Zambian people understand that there is a ‘material world’, that there are ‘material goods’, and that the category ‘material’ is distinct from the category of ‘spiritual’. Hence, Deuteronomy 28:11 is interpreted as being about “possessing material goods” (Zulu 22). Ellington tells us that prosperity preachers remove verses they use from their original context (31), but then so do authors of this work, who ignore the holistic context of biblical times, that has many parallels with African contexts today. It is a relief on page 68 (Banda L.) to be told that we need “new theological categories” – a truth that the rest of this book cannot take advantage of, because in using English, it is confined to already-existing categories.

Prosperity gospel theology, I suggest, endeavours to compliment Western theological categories, in an effort to make sense of them. ‘Material things’ are in Africa not what they are in the West. The material and the spiritual are in Africa interchangeable, even mutually creative. Hence the use of English terms such as ‘material goods’ (e.g. Ellington 34) with respect to Africa is fallacious. This text recognises the need for the way forward to be “holistic” (Chilenje 17), yet it’s too often unquestioned use of English-language categories disqualifies what it advocates.

‘Guarantee’ means something different in Zambian English than it does in Western English.

Zulu tells us on page 21, that prosperity teaching “guarantee[s] … good life and material possessions” (see also Ellington, 44). Reading the rest of the book, this is evidently not true. Poverty continues to be rampant in Zambia. Pentecostal church members are amongst those struggling with poverty. How then can prosperity teaching be guaranteeing prosperity? Saying instead that preachers of this prosperity gospel ‘appear to guarantee’ prosperity, would be a more accurate rendering of what is going on. In other words, translation into English, or the way that Zambian people use English, suggests to Western readers or hearers, that something is guaranteed (Western English), when it is not guaranteed at all (Zambian English). Zambians themselves know as much; they realise that many people do not receive what (using Western English interpretation) they are ‘promised’, but that does not deter them. They live with the disappointments. They continue to use the same terminology, or to appreciate its use as part of their Christian experience.

The power of stated words is recognised elsewhere in this text (Chilenje 4). The same power of words tells us why telling people they should ‘suffer’ and ‘embrace poverty’ as part of their Christian belief, is problematic: Doing so implies one is cursing people. Prosperity preachers are wanting to produce an ‘anthropocentric spiritual force which is directed at God’ (66), Banda L. tells us. This is, he concedes, a use of language largely unfamiliar to the West. If Zambian bases for language usage are unfamiliar to the West, then Westerners should stop thinking that they understand what Zambian preachers are saying.

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Category: Fall 2018, Ministry

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is 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), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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