Christianity by Continent

August 3, 2008 | 8 comments
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I recently read Martin Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (2007). The subtitle is slightly misleading, as Marty recounts Christian history on a continent-by-continent basis. The last two chapters, covering the modern return of Christianity to Africa and Asia, raise issues of particular interest to the LDS experience: correlation and assimilation.

The book starts off with the first Asian and African episodes, as young Christianity spread through Damascus and Antioch, then to the east, and west to Egypt and beyond. Eventually it spread to Europe, which only became the “center” of Christianity after Islam swept away the well-rooted Christian presence in African and western Asia during the seventh century. Isolated, Christianity did not break out of its European citadel for several centuries, first to South America, then North America. Finally, Christianity in the 18th and 19th century returned to Africa and Asia (in the Far East), where it now displays surprising strength and vitality. That’s the book in a nutshell. But what exactly is going on in Africa and Asia?

Africa and Correlation

Initial Christian activity in Africa in the modern era was largely colonial, with European leaders controlling African branches of European denominations. There was little interest in preexisting African religious systems or culture. Then, as the 19th century drew to a close, “indigenous Christianity” began to emerge: “[T]here emerged a new model sometimes called Zionist, since it drew its name from the claim that Africa was the Zion for Africans.” Pentecostalism was big, as were claims of various Africans to prophetic activity. One, William Wade Harris (1865-1929), claimed a visit from the angel Gabriel, which he followed by conducting a tremendously successful evangelizing career. Another was Simon Kimbangu (1889-1951), who “developed and gave his name to The Church of Jesus Christ on the Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu.” [The name's got a nice ring to it, don't you think?] African polygamy also cause differences between the locals and senior European leaders.

Post-WWII anticolonialism, plus this history of indigenous Christian movements, sets a precedent of African churches exercising their own religious prerogatives at the periphery. This poses potential problems for any denomination that, like the LDS Church, ties all congregations into tight hierarchical system of supervision and direction. Consider the experience of the Anglicans. When the Episcopal Church

began to be torn over the issue of ordaining homosexuals, it met rejection by many of its kin African Anglicans, especially in Nigeria. While the churches in America muted their criticism of Anglican adaptation to African ways–polygamy remained a widespread practice–African Anglicans were vocal in their criticisms and interventions in American church life. (p. 205)

Without belaboring the point, this summary suggests first why LDS proselyting may have struck a resonant chord among many African Christians who were estranged from mainline European denominations and who had developed their own indigenous prophetic activity. But it also suggests how quickly the strongly conservative theological preferences may turn on modernist accommodators, even Mormon ones, and how difficult it may be to “correlate” African churches that have a recent heritage of allowing their own indigenous variations and modifications to sprout and flourish.

Asia and Assimilation

There is one dramatic difference in Asia: the existing cultures were perceived by the European traders and exploreres, and by missionaries who arrived shortly thereafter, to be well advanced. The Asians were already “civilized,” they just had to be Christianized. The question facing missionaries was how much to adopt the forms of Asian civilization to present the Christian message. Conservatives back home would object to accommodating the Christian message to the local culture and beliefs, but local missionaries would often do so anyway. The Phillipines (under Catholic beliefs) and Korea (under Protestant, then indigenous beliefs) are the Christian superstars of the Far East in this telling. Korea, for example, is now “the strongest Christian presence in Asia and second now only to the United States among sponsors of missionaries” (p. 214).

With more sophisticated and vibrant cultures in Asia, the danger to a religion like Mormonism of a morphing embrace remains acute. Yet some accommodation is necessary–effectively teaching people in their own language requires adopting some of their terms and categories. Here is the dilemma for proselyting Mormons as well as other denominations, reflected by this earlier Christian experience:

If they simply mouthed the name of their God in an alien context, people of Asia would scowl and shrug and depart the scene. If they went too far in naming and identifying God in terms that various Asian cultures used, there was danger that Christianity would simply be absorbed or shelved. (p. 218.)

Mormonism is already dealing with more familiar forms of Continental Christianity: European religious apathy, South American inactivity, and North American religious pluralism. It is reasonable to think that correlation and assimilation/accommodation will become serious challenges as the LDS presence in Africa and Asia grows in coming years.

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8 Responses to Christianity by Continent

  1. Velska on August 3, 2008 at 3:13 am

    In my native country we have a state religion in practice, although freedom of religion is a constitutional right. The Church is a recent presence, and most members are converts, who have absorbed the traditions of apostate Christianity. It seems very hard for them to let them go, and I have butted heads with people about observing traditions that have nothing to do with our religion. (Mind you, I see some “Mormon” traditions as American middle-class traditions that have nothing to do with our religion.)

    Any culture has its baggage. I would suppose that what is going on around the world is pretty much what is recorded in Acts and the Epistles of the Apostles in the New Testament: circumcision, dietary rules, dress code, family roles (also in relation to welfare)… These are the most obvious ones that come to mind. We LDS don’t much differ from other people in the West (Europe, including Russia, and Americas) by the way we dress (other than maybe being more modest) or by the way we observe local holidays (perhaps with the exception of drinking alcohol or such). Should people in Asia and Africa differ from their fellow natives more radically than us? As for me, as someone, who didn’t have any religion before I joined the Church (yes, I had been christened and included in the records of the state church, but separated myself from it); I ask myself how should, for example, Asian buddhist-cum-lds, celebrate Christmas, which is a European pagan festival with most of its traditions having nothing to do with Christ.

    I think this calls into question what the most basic things in our faith are. I have seen in my 30 years of following Conference talks, Church magazines and lesson manuals, the trend to deal with more basic issues of what it means to follow Christ. And I think it’s a good thing, and is the result of inspired guidance to make the doctrines of the gospel “plain and simple” so that they can be adopted by people from various backgrounds.

    I have faith in the Lord’s plan. We just need to be open-minded about what it means to be a Saint. The commandments cannot be compromised, that’s obvious – but a lot of things can look different.

  2. Dave on August 3, 2008 at 10:35 am

    That’s an excellent comment, Velska, and you deserve a pat on the back for staying strong for 30 years with less support from your local culture and local LDS institutions than most converts have to work with.

    Does it make sense for African or Asian Latter-day Saints who have never been to Utah, have never seen the Great Plains, and who have no pioneer ancestors to celebrate July 24 as Pioneer Day every year as an LDS activity? Probably not. But then is it proper to bring local or national religious holidays or festivals into the local LDS tradition? That’s the whole assimilation debate.

    Once we start speaking of calendars and festivals, we are dealing with liturgy, and the LDS tradition doesn’t really have one, or if it does it is very informal. Correlation is obviously correlating to something, but it’s not clear what exactly they are making local practices correlate to, apart from teaching the same lessons from the same manual. This topic definitely requires deeper consideration than I can give it. Links, anyone?

  3. Eric Boysen on August 3, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Does it make sense for the Jews to celebrate Passover? They celebrate departure. We celebrate arrival. More to the point is the common aspect of these holidays that speaks to a universal understanding of the human heart, they celebrate freedom and we celebrate freedom.

  4. Bookslinger on August 3, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Many US-based Mormons celebrate Halloween with a “Trunk-or-Treat” activity at the chapel or chapel parking lot. US-based wards also often celebrate Independence Day (July 4th), and Memorial Day with ward activities (usually cookouts) at the chapel or at a local park as a ward activity. These three events are culture-specific to the US, and are often “celebrated” with official ward functions. I’ve been to a couple Valentine’s Day ward functions too.

    So I don’t see why the church should forbid non-US wards to forego their local celebrations.

    The delicate part would be deciding which non-US celebrations might contain too much of other-religions. For example, US-based LDS usually do not celebrate Lent, Maundy Thursday, Saints’ days (well, except for St. Valentine, kinda-sorta.)

    I just discovered a week ago that full-time Church employees got 2 days off this year for Pioneer Day.

  5. Velska on August 4, 2008 at 1:05 am

    Of course the Church members celebrate their national holidays according to the local culture. That makes sense.

    But I am with pres. Uchtdorf in claiming the LDS pioneer heritage as my own despite the lack of pioneer ancestors. Plus, being the only Church member in my childhood family – and pretty much disowned for it – I think I’m entitled to some of that. I feel that the current strength of the Church can be attributed to the sacrifices of early saints. But we must make our own, too.

    But still, I think that the 13th Article of Faith says a lot of what we should think about this. So we can be pretty open as to what local customs we observe as long as they fit within that framework. But it would be good to have some distinct LDS traditions, too. Pioneer day could be one of them, I guess. Although we don’t emigrate en masse any more.

    I feel that by building on local strengths a lot can be achieved. If I lived among Jews, I’d have no problem celebrating Passover with them. I feel that confucian respect of ancestors is okay, as long as we’re not worshiping their remains – there’s a line there somewhere. But local customs shouldn’t be integrated in Sacrament Meetings – I’d draw the line there.

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 4, 2008 at 3:10 am

    I am with Eric (#3). Most of the Mormon Pioneers were immigrants from Britain and Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, not Native Americans (in the sense of the Native American Party or Know-Nothings, whose program focused–deja vu!–on opposing immigration). That is especially true of the handcart pioneers, who have become the literal icon of the pioneer experience, not only because they had the most excruciating experience, but also because it is easier to build replica handcarts than assemble a bunch of ox-drawn wagons. The creation of the Mormon commonwealth in the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains was viewed at the time by many Americans as a distinctively foreign presence, largely immigrant, with exotic beliefs and practices (especially polygamy).

    Pioneer Day certainly has its local manifestations, such as the Days of ’47 Parade, but it is an event of church history, not American history, and is part of the heritage of anyone who decides to become (or stay) a Latter-day Saint. It is all about fleeing the wicked world to escape persecution and find a place where we have freedom to live according to our unique covenants with God.

    Even though the church encourages members to build up Zion in their native lands, a large number of Mormons internationally still find their way to Utah, to go to BYU or to serve as missionaries or because they have special connections with people they know there. That is why there are Tongan and Japanese and Hispanic communities within the larger Mormon community of Utah. Between people who have served as missionaries in foreign lands, and native Mormons of those lands who immigrate for education, missions or work (including work for the Church itself), Utah has become a quietly cosmopolitan community, one whose many different elements are masked because of the shared values of the Church that overlay the cultural and ethnic diversity. Mormons strive to sift out the best parts of their cultural heritage, both native and adopted, and unite them with the Gospel, creating a hybrid culture that is a more intense version of the American hybridization of immigrant ethnicities. Our connections to our ancestral cultures are further intensified by family history study and the temple ordinances we engage in to bind ourselves to a seventh great-grandfather from Sweden and a great-grandmother from Japan. Tapping into our ancestral roots has become a widespread American pastime, and Mormons have the resources and motive to be the vanguard of that practice. Just as we know God better by understanding our origins, we also understand other nations better by recalling our origins in them.

    Americans who have no pioneer ancestors have the same reason to adopt themselves into the heritage of the Mormon Pioneers as any Nigerian or Filipino Latter-day Saint. After all, our patriarchal blessings tell us that we ultimately are all Israelites, and that this ethnic identity will be an eternal one, outlasting all nations.

  7. mike on August 5, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    What I read above is that it is acceptable for LDS converts and others in foreign lands to celebrate local holidays as long as they are not expressive of local religions that they have replaced with the gospel.

    I think modern Mormons in foreign (to me) cultures should not discard their traditons and holidays to be left with nothing or left with meaningless celebrations of events unrelated to them. (Exceptions might include really obnoxious practices like cannabalism or temple prostitution.) They have to go one step further and that step is to do what I would call Mormonize their celebrations and holidays. This is a creative process and requires inspiration.

    One example: In Japan where I served my mission, a summer Buddist festival about this time of year (Obon) celebrated the return of the ancestors. Traditonal Japanese had these dances and prayed to their ancestor spirits who were believed to come back home for a few days. A few LDS converts in Japan felt that they must ignore Obon festival because it was basicaly a form of idolatry to worship ancestors; so at church it should be business as usual. Others Mormonized Obon, turning it into a time to submit family names for temple work and update personal/family histories and plan temple trips to Hawaii which were very rare and expensive during my time. But a temple trip to Tokyo during Obon after that temple was available would fit into this perspective. This is how Christmas went from a Roman to Christian holiday.

    A LDS member in Japan does not have to avoid the neighborhood gatherings at night with the beautiful lanterns and the harmless Obon dances and the teriyake chicken that I still remember with fondness after so many years.

  8. mike on August 5, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    I also recall another example, a bad example of what can happen in efforts to merge cultral celebrations.

    A couple of rather tall large missionaries painted their faces to look like Frankenstein on Halloween. Following the branch Halloween party, they tormented the twilight occupants of a park and nearby street in Japan. The described it like one of those old Godzilla movies, with hundreds of people screaming and fleeing them in terror. Halloween was not generally known or celebrated at that time in Japan. As they returned laughing in the deserted street, they heard footsteps running up behind them. Oh what a scare they would give this poor unsuspecting soul, they thought with glee.

    At the last moment they suddenly leaped around together and growled at the guy. He was a young police officer and he was so frightened that he fell to the ground. After a few moments he regained his composure and got up and asked them who they were and what they thought they wwere doing. The two monsters switched into missionary mode. We represent the…..

    Our branch president had a friend who worked at the police station and he managed to get the situation straightened out without the mission president having to make a special trip to come down there. The Japanese are by nature a patient and forgiving and tolerant people. But would it be any wonder if the local members in that branch decided that a Halloween party was not necessary the following year?

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