Monday, July 1, 2013

Book challenges the missionary task

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A remarkable story of a African warrior, Okonkwo, moving up in leadership and prestige of his tribe, Umuofia. The portrayal of African culture--customs, religion, and social order and roles—is riveting. Okonkwo is an angry man, driven to rank, prestige, and success in the eyes of his tribe, completing rebelling against the weakness and laziness and reputation of his own father.

Then at a funeral for a wizened leader, Okonkwo accidentally shoots and kills the dead man’s son. In keeping with the custom, Okonkwo and his family leave Umuofia for seven years. While in exile, he learns of inroads that an English missionary is making. To his horror and great fury, his oldest son converts to Christianity. Upon his return from exile, Okonkwo finds that the Christians have also brought government (colonialism) with them. And the old ways are changing. Okonkwo himself is not welcomed back with quite the fanfare he expected.

Through a series of events, Umuofia burns the Christian church. Six leaders, including Okonkwo, are arrested by the new British government, they are shorn and starved and thus humiliated. Upon release several days later, Umuofia gathers to strategize. British messengers come to disperse the meeting, whereupon Okonkwo beheads the leader. The tumult of his clansmen when he does so tells him that the battle against the British is lost. He then hangs himself.

I really appreciated the African point-of-view in this novel. So many other novels are written from the point-of-view of the white man. For instance, Heart of Darkness, which is by no means a pro-colonialism book, nevertheless tells the story from the white point-of-view. The Africans are little more than animals, for we barely get a glimpse into their world and their lives. Things Fall Apart fleshes out the African perspective and its way-of-life. That helps to see how dark the dark side of colonialism is. We see a culture that has existed and carried on and policed itself for generations being dismantled and swept away by foreigners and their foreign ways insinuating themselves into the culture in both subtle and overt ways.

What’s particularly disturbing to me is the picture of colonialism’s entrance being made through Christianity. One of the messages one could take away from this book is that proselytizing is wrong. How does one respond to that message?

• Two missionaries are presented, Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. Mr. Brown’s method was far more endearing. He made friends with the clan’s leaders and worked hard not to offend. Mr. Smith did not, however. Such forceful, thoughtless tactics as Mr. Smith used should be condemned. Further, the alignment of the English church with the English government was not ideal, to my thinking.

• This is one story, and stories are often told in such a way as to manipulate the emotional thinking of the readers. Here we are aroused to be saddened for Okonkwo and Umuofia and a little bit piqued at the Christians, as well as the government, though we can tolerate Mr. Brown. But other stories could be told as well of missionaries who have gone into African villages at great sacrifice to tell the African peoples of the God who loves them and the Savior who died for them; of missionaries who led them away from tribal warfare and violence and into love and peace.

• There were some things in Umuofia that needed reforming. Okonkwo freely beat his wives, almost killing one. Okonkwo had three wives; others had more. Twins were abandoned upon birth due to superstition about them. Prisoners like Ikemefuna were killed. African culture was not perfect; it was not pristine.

• What if the Christian story is true? What if the African religions are false and the African gods are false? Is it not then a good thing that the Christians would bring that to the attention of the Africans, that they might avoid an eternity in hell?

• Unfortunately, the Christians story in Things Fall Apart is poorly told and represented by Mr. Brown and especially Mr. Smith. But if my doctor has a surly bedside manner yet still gives me the medicine I need that saves my life, isn’t it better that I had to deal with the doctor than to have not dealt with him? In the end, if the Christian story is true, Nwoye, Okonkwo’s oldest son who converted, gained eternal life in heaven, but Okonkwo, when he killed himself, entered into eternal damnation.

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