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

The contributors to this work implicitly, but not explicitly, recognise that prosperity teaching points to a failure in communication on the part of the West. Westerners after all typically enjoy greater levels of prosperity than do Africans (Togarasei 119). The West is frustrated by the failure of the prescriptions it has given to enable Africa to ‘develop’. An underlying reason for that failure is that the West intends to communicate only through means understood by those who have a modern and therefore Western worldview. Because Zambians typically do not have a Western worldview, what is intended is not what Zambians hear.

Africans use prosperity teaching to endeavour to achieve prosperity. This seems wrong to Westerners.

Africans use prosperity teaching to endeavour to achieve prosperity. This seems wrong to Westerners. Westerners prescribe solutions to such wrong-practice, such as advocating “rigorous theological training” (Ellington 31), or teaching Zambian people the “skill of analysis” (Ellington 36). This kind of solution is effectively saying that someone must be ‘modern’ to correctly understand Christianity, and that the solution to Africa’s ails, is more of the West, not more of God. This prescription has ‘unhealthy dependency’ written all over it.

“Poverty is [in Zambian minds] linked to African traditional ‘things’,” Togarasei tells us (119). Zambian people realise that modernity is associated with prosperity, but most of them do not (and cannot) recognise the detailed mechanisms that Westerners use to produce that prosperity. Yes, prosperity sermons can be inspiring (Togarasei 122). To Africans, that may be ‘all that there is’. Westerners however realise that such sermons represent a failure at grasping Western dualism. This will continue to be frustrating to those Westerners who want African people to learn to produce wealth as the West does.

Ellington tells us that Zambian “people face poverty and sickness beyond what much of the world has ever seen” (29). One wonders – is Zambia the poorest country in the world? The author seems not to have realised how much Africa has advanced in the last century. Zambian people now drive cars, wear glasses, read books, put on clothes and shoes, watch TVs, build houses out of bricks, communicate by phone; and many more things that were absent before the advent of Christian mission. Some might see Zambians as ‘poorer than ever’. Zambians are themselves more likely to perceive that they are on the up and up! They want to make sure that trend continues. For Zambians, “Christianity and modernity seem to be a package deal” (97), Kroesbergen-Kamps rightly observes. Although reminiscent of the cargo cults, the prosperity gospel is for many African people means to continue that upward movement.

In Zambia, Pentecostalism has been tied to prosperity teaching and is therefore seen as the clean way of getting rich. If it is God who legitimately gets you rich, then if someone has gotten rich without God, he is suspected of using alternative means. Those alternative means, in Zambia, are considered part of Satanism or witchcraft. Hence the negation of Pentecostalism, or getting rich without God, means Satan has got you rich, which is wealth that has come by sacrificing to demons.

Continuing to engage African theology using English, as this book tries to do, may be a distraction from the important task of doing truly African research.

Zambian authors in this compendium often define the terms they use from English language sources, typically texts produced by Westerners (for example, see Chilenje 4). This practice begs the question of the status of English in Zambia: Are Zambians using English terms as they are in the West, or to fit local categories of understanding? Surely the latter would be impossible: how can Zambian community life, history and culture not influence Zambians’ use of English? There are vast cultural and historical differences between Zambian and European peoples. Are they expected just to disappear, or be totally inconsequential? (Formal schooling advocates Western categories, such as those rooted in Western dualism, that come from Britain. These unfortunately don’t make sense to Zambians.) While officially using it in Western ways, Zambians actually use English predominantly in a way that makes sense to themselves. Yet there is no clear line between these two alternative uses. The absence of such a clear line, means that to understand or use Zambian English, one has to learn it in Zambia. At the very least, for Westerners to seriously engage in scholarship with Zambians, requires them to approach English from an African cultural perspective, so through a knowledge of one or more Zambian languages. The fact that this text does not credit any of its Western authors with intricate knowledge of Zambian languages, probably means that they have only been functioning in English. Then it should not surprise us to discover that Zambian phrases confuse them (Kroesbergen 75).

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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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