Let the Bible Shape African Culture

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Listen to an audio version of this article read by Lilly Million of South Africa

Have you ever wondered what makes the Bible unique? It is God’s special revelation to humanity, unveiling to us his plan of redemption. It promises re-creation. And when it takes root within a society, its potential transformative impact is incalculable. Having had such a remarkable impact upon western civilisation, it is my prayer that the force of God’s truth will be felt in the renewal of Africa. The Bible has shaped the West. It can positively shape Africa, too. Below are three areas we can observe the transforming power of God’s truth.

Morality

The Bible gave the West a basis and grounding for morality. This began with the fundamental reality of a holy God. Rather than one of numerous pagan deities, they came to believe in a Creator. This one and holy God made humanity in his own image and expected them to live in line with his revealed will. As question six of The New City Catechism puts it, “We glorify God by enjoying him, loving him, trusting him, and by obeying his will, commands and law.” In the Old Testament, God crystallised this moral will or order into the Ten Commandments. But it is splashed across the pages of our Bibles, both the Old and New Testaments. Within the broader story of the Bible, these principles apply across cultures and generations.

When the Bible takes root within a society, its potential transformative impact is incalculable

A number of religious revivals and developments also fostered regard for God’s word in the West. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was perhaps most significant, together with the dissemination of biblical truth via catechisms in subsequent centuries. Another noteworthy upheaval was the Evangelical Awakening in America and England. The ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield, among others, injected order into the soul of both nations. These helped build a culture of trust markedly different from those found in other regions.

Family

The Bible teaches us to see the family as God’s own creation, a matrix for proper and rich human development. It was an institution established because God saw that “it was not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). No wonder the home has been described as the school of character. Within it, a child learns virtues like respect, patience, honesty, diligence, and humility. Even the parents better understand love and service as they learn to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

The Bible teaches us to see the family as God’s own creation, a matrix for proper and rich human development

The Western world elevated the family, as well as the status of women within it, by affirming monogamy. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was particularly influential in this regard. Through his revolt against priestly celibacy, he helped position the family as the central unit of society. In Germany, he championed family as the school of character and monogamous marriage as something to be celebrated, not avoided. Ultimately, this resulted in the higher status of women in Western societies, relative to other cultures.

Humanity

The modern regard for human rights did not emerge in a vacuum. It is a fruit of the West’s belief that every human has been created in God’s image. Reflecting on this, the Indian Christian writer, Vishal Mangalwadi, observes, “The belief in the unique dignity of human beings was the force that created western civilisation, where citizens do not exist for the state but the state exists for individuals… This high view of the human person has had a profound influence across spheres, as diverse as politics, legal theory, and business. But we should not overlook that it is derived from the Bible.”

African cultures have not produced an equally high view of the individual. For in these cultures there has been a pronounced focus on the community. Traditions, beliefs, practices, and glory of culture or community often prevail at the expense of individuals

This fundamental truth about individuals also encouraged the development of healthcare and the creation of schools. Medicine and education ensure that the individual’s physical body can be kept healthy while her mind is nurtured. Again, the value of humanity found in the Bible gave shape to these developments.

African cultures have not produced an equally high view of the individual. For in these cultures there has been a pronounced focus on the community. Traditions, beliefs, practices, and glory of culture or community often prevail at the expense of individuals. Or we might say, the individual was usually considered only in so far as being a loyal member of the group. Her existence and significance is derived from and dependent on the tribe.

The Bible is a book for Africa

Besides the above lessons on the significance of the Bible in the West, we must not lose sight of its central message – the gospel – which still heals nations today.  The gospel brings hope in the midst of distress. Amidst the financial scandals, military conflicts, and political turmoil, the gospel offers assurance that God’s kingdom will ultimately prevail.

This gospel is not one of mere personal salvation: me and Jesus. It is a radically transformative message that unsettles the power equation in societies. When the gospel is boldly proclaimed and compassionately demonstrated, in caring for the poor and oppressed, this truth will transform whole communities. This is what took place in the West.

The gospel brings hope in the midst of distress. Amidst the financial scandals, military conflicts, and political turmoil, the gospel offers assurance that God’s kingdom will ultimately prevail

Writing from Africa, I am excited to learn of the immense potential the gospel possesses to shape our continent. Beyond the contemporary church’s preoccupation with the gifts of the Holy Spirit for personal healing and blessing, the full message of the gospel offers something richer and grander. God is renewing our world and making all things new. Along with Peter, we wait ‘for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3:13). As the church heralds truth in the power of the Holy Spirit, she acts as God’s agent in establishing this new heaven and new earth.

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared as a book review of Truth and Transformation: a Manifesto for Ailing Nations, by Vishal Mangalwadi. That review can be found at Dayo’s blog, The Christian Mind.

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