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Christianity in South Africa: A political, social and cultural history.

Christianity in South Africa: A political, social and cultural history, edited by Richard Elphick & Rodney Davenport. James Currey, Oxford, 1998. xiv+480pp. 45.00 [pounds sterling] (hardback); 16.95 [pounds sterling] (paperback). ISBN 0-85255-750-7 (hardback); 0-85255-751-5 (paperback)

This is an ambitious book, which aims to give a synthesis of recent historiography on Christianity in South Africa; to relate this to the broad contexts of economic, political, cultural and social history, and to provide a coherent account of the inner dynamic of Christian history and thought within South Africa. The first part explores the coming of Christianity and its impact on white and black communities before the twentieth century. There follows a series of chapters tracing the developments of different confessional traditions in modern South Africa. The third section is a series of monographs on `subcultures' such as religion in the mining compounds, among women and Christian-Muslim relations at the Cape. After a section on the arts, the book concludes with three broad interpretative essays under the general title `Christianity, Power and Race', which examine Christian theologies and ideologies in their historical context: the impact of the millenarian traditions, the attempts to develop a social theology in an increasingly segregated society and the ethical and theological motivation for positions adopted in relation to apartheid.

By and large this book well achieves its objectives. Despite the large number and diversity of authors, the editors have exercised a tight control on the work as a whole, to procure a coherent collection. The full annotation gives a good indication of the rich resource of published literature.

The first chapters well convey the importance of Christianity for the overall development of South Africa's colonial structures and thinking. Jonathan Gerstner and Johann Kinghorn have particularly important chapters which produce a much more nuanced account of Afrikaner religion than is normal in English-language accounts, exploring the complexity of the Reformed tradition both in its internal debates and in its interaction with an African environment. The book in general succeeds very well in integrating; the history of the Afrikaner churches into the wider perspective of the South African churches. Janet Hodgson provides a powerful presentation of the way in which Christianity was appropriated into the Xhosa world view, `reordering space and time'. A number of articles explore the way in which Christianity served both in acculturating African societies to colonialism and in providing the resources for resistance and the creation of African cultures. There is a very interesting discussion on `respectability': as a means of social control and a resource by which `Coloured' people (Khoikhoi and former slaves) could build up self-respect and reconstruct their community (Elbourne & Ross's chapter, p. 48).

Something of the coherence of this first section is lost in the material on the twentieth century. The section dealing with individual confessional histories is the most disappointing, at times producing a somewhat pedestrian survey of denominations which fails to contribute much to the overall synthesis. Perhaps a series of chapters with a primarily chronological basis of organization would have produced more unity and coherence at this point. In contrast the monographs are often stimulating, especially Deborah Gaitskell's exploration of the importance of religious societies (manyano) for black women, with their emphasis on prayer and fostering of family life, the creation of a sphere where the eloquence and volubility of the oral religious experience can find expression. On the other hand, Jeff Opland's chapter on literacy has many pertinent things to say on the place of Bible translation and religious literature in developing community and ethnicity, illuminating on the censorship which missionaries could and did exercise on what kind of vernacular literature could be published. The great Xhosa writer, S. E. K. Mqhayi, was a conspicuous victim.

Richard Elphick provides masterly summaries: an introduction on historiographical trends and the general importance of religion for South African historiography; and, towards the end, a useful overview of the place of Christianity and society in the mission churches as segregation became more deeply entrenched in colonial society from the late eighteenth century. Elphick is concerned to put the many `micro' studies of South African Christianity into some kind of coherent `macro' context. The editors succeed well in this aim in the first part of the book; not so well in the material on the twentieth century. It seems to me that the paucity of accounts of how Christianity operates at the local level serves to undermine the establishment of the macro-synthesis. In particular, such studies might have helped to overcome the division between the `mainline' churches, whose perspective dominates this book, and the African Instituted Churches that are increasingly important in defining African Christian religious practice as a whole. The two articles by Hennie Pretorius and Lizo Jafta on African Instituted Churches and Allan Anderson and Gerald Pilla on Pentecostalism well outline ways of mapping and understanding these traditions. But the absence of more than a token representation of black African historians, and the lack of chapters examining the way that diverse Christian traditions together operate at the rural village or township level, does have the effect of muting African `insider' perspectives. For more than two decades now, Black theology has to a large extent set the agenda for creative theological thinking by the churches (as Peter Walshe's final chapter well shows). African history writing on Christianity, which in many respects is more sophisticated in its utilization of historical and sociological theory, still lags behind other parts of Africa in articulating black understandings of their own history. More than anything, this is an indication of the continuing need for dismantling the legacy of apartheid in the academy.

The general standard of writing is high, and there is a commendable absence of misprints and suchlike minor errors. There are some 100 small illustrations--the quality of their production is not particularly good, but they are very useful, and are referred to in the text, another indication of the careful editorial work which has gone into producing this book. It is eloquent and persuasive in its advocacy of the importance of Christianity for a general understanding of South African history, and as such will be of considerable value both to the general historian and to the student of Christianity.


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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:African Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Next Article:Deconstructing Apartheid Discourse.

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