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Conversion to christianity: the colonization of the mind?

Missionary activity always holds an implicit psychological violence, however discretely it is conducted. It is aimed at turning the minds and hearts of people away from their native religion to one that is generally unsympathetic and hostile to it ... Missionary activity and conversion, therefore, is not about freedom of religion. It is about the attempt of one religion to exterminate all others. Such an exclusive attitude cannot promote tolerance or understanding or resolve communal tensions. The missionary wants to put an end to pluralism, choice and freedom of religion. He wants one religion, his own, for everyone and will sacrifice his life to that cause. True freedom of religion should involve freedom from conversion. The missionary is like a salesman targeting people in their homes or like an invader seeking to conquer. Such disruptive activity is not a right and it cannot promote social harmony ... the conversion mentality is inherently intolerant ... conversion is inherently an unethical practice and inevitably breeds unethical results.(1)


Those statements are extracted from an article, cheekily entitled "The Missionary Position", which has been displayed for over two years on the website of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the governing party of India. The author is David Frawley, or Vamadeva Shastri, an American, who, it should be noted, is himself a convert, viz. from Catholicism to Hinduism. Frawley's statements are characteristic of Hindu attempts to brand missionary religions, and Christianity in particular, as intrinsically intolerant, and conversely to claim for a Hindu monistic perspective on religious truth a monopoly of the virtue of tolerance. In the name of "pluralism, choice and freedom of religion", Frawley is implicitly supporting the right and duty of the Indian government to take legislative action to curb Christian evangelistic activity in India. (2)

By way of comment on these claims by a Hinduized American, we may refer to a native of India who is now a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. In her provocative book, Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief, Gauri Viswanathan argues that religious conversion is profoundly threatening to dominant communities, for it possesses the potential to destabilize the equilibrium between majority and minority. In such contexts of disparity, she points out:
   Dominant communities prefer to use the term "proselytism" rather
   than "conversion" to indicate the forcible nature of religious
   change. The term also carries with it a baggage of associations
   that identify religious change as an effect of manipulation,
   propagandistic activity, loss of individual self-control and will
   power, and sustained political mobilization. The use of the term
   "proselytism" further denies subjectivity, agency, or choice to
   the subject and replaces individuals with masses as the unit of
   analysis. (3)

Viswanathan's observations can be given a broader application. It can be said that Frawley's identification of a commitment to conversion with the proselytism that denies religious freedom and toleration is representative of majority opinion in Western pluralistic societies, whether in intellectual circles or at the level of generally received wisdom. Beneath the placid surface of the current pluralist orthodoxy in religious studies, currents of an essentially illiberal kind flow. It is assumed that, for the sake of ethnic harmony and mutual human understanding, religious affiliation should, and even must remain confined within the traditional territorial boundaries of particular communities of faith. Missionary or conversionist religions that refuse to acknowledge those boundaries as sacrosanct are deemed guilty of the sins of "proselytism" and "intolerance".

The main thrust of the secular academic case against Christian missions is no longer that missions have been besmirched historically by the extent of their complicity with the expansionist or exploitative designs of Western colonial governments. Although the damage done to Christian mission by the extent of its historical compromises with the colonial project is self-evident to Christians, there is now discernible in secular scholarship what one historian has termed "a gathering swell of reaction against binary models which assume that Christianity was little more than a tool of imperialism, and that it is best analysed within the context of colonial imposition or capitalist machination". (4) This realignment reflects the weakening hold of classical Marxism on historians, who are now less inclined to locate the heart of the imperial impulse in the grand designs of colonial governments or their subservience to capitalist interests. Rather, the focus of attention has shifted from politics and economy to culture, mentality and language. This reorientation has led analyses of Christian missions in two potentially divergent directions.

On the one hand, following the example of Edward Said's massively influential Orientalism (1978), (5) historians and postcolonial theorists are now more concerned to expose the intellectual and discursive structures of representation and mentality that underpinned assumptions of European superiority over the oriental or pagan "other" in the colonial past, and continue to do so in more subtle form in the postcolonial present. The colonization of the mind through the inculcation of Western education, literature, and religion is now seen to be logically prior to, and ultimately more destructive than, the colonization of material resources and the territory which contains them. From this perspective, conversion to Christianity has invited attention as the alleged symbolic moment of capitulation to the cultural and ideological power of the West.

The Congolese philosopher, V. Y. Mudimbe, presents a stark example of this approach. Mudimbe has made the sweeping claim that, "Missionary speech is always pre-determined, pre-regulated, let us say colonized". (6) It should be noticed that any understanding of evangelization merely as the transmission of a fixed body of propositional truth will tend to reinforce the conviction of opponents of Christian mission that it is intrinsically about the colonization of consciousness. Mudimbe concludes:
   A person whose ideas and mission come from and are sustained by
   God is rightly entitled to the use of all possible means, even
   violence, to achieve his objectives. Consequently, "African
   conversion" rather than being a positive outcome of a
   dialogue--unthinkable per se--came to be the sole position the
   African could take in order to survive as a human being. (7)

The possibility of a genuine dialogue between missionary and hearer that leads to conversion is thus dismissed as "unthinkable". In Mudimbe's indignation against the missionary programme of "domestication", he deprives Africans of any independent will or agency except the inclination to collaborate in their own domestication through acceptance of the "social engineering" of training an indigenous priesthood. The climax of the conversion process is thus assimilation to an alien identity:
   ... the phase where the convert, individually a "child", assumes
   the identity of a style imposed upon him or her to the point of
   displaying it as his of her nature; the conversion has then worked
   perfectly: the "child" is now a candidate for assimilation, insofar
   as he or she lives already as an entity made for reflecting both a
   Christian essence and, say, a Dominican or a Franciscan or a Jesuit
   style. (8)

For Mudimbe, as for many other commentators today, to be confident that one has God on one's side legitimates coercion or violence in the pursuit of one's divinely sanctioned aims. In his view, as also in Frawley's, the illusory certainty of faith leads inevitably to the unethical outcome of psychological domination.

It is doubtful, however, whether such monochromatic interpretations as Mudimbe's represent the majority view, at least among scholars who take historical evidence seriously. The growing emphasis on the cultural and linguistic fabric of imperialism has promoted the study of missions as inter-cultural encounters, and hence has stimulated the asking of questions about the perceptions and aspirations of those to whom missions were directed. From this standpoint, the phenomenon of conversion to Christianity or Islam in modern Africa, or other primal societies, has demanded investigation of it as an instance of unusually sharp cultural discontinuity, i.e. as a "great transformation" in which individuals or, more commonly, groups reformulate their identity in response to major changes in the scale and contours of their social environment. (9) Such a line of inquiry invites the scholar to seek to inhabit the mental framework of the indigenous receptor. As such, it tends to undermine interpretations of conversion as the colonization of the mind, for, once an indigenous standpoint has been adopted, what is no longer politically correct (and quite rightly so) is to deny any independent agency to indigenous actors. Thus, Gauri Viswanathan, once a research student of none other than Edward Said, began her academic quest to investigate the literary and cultural underpinning of British rule in India out of a conviction, inspired by the theories of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, that, "Cultural domination works by consent and can (and often does) precede conquest by force." (10) Yet, as we have seen, Viswanathan's most recent book, as a result of her taking seriously the dislocation and civil exclusion experienced by converts to Christianity under the British Raj, concludes that conversion to Christianity ran clean across the logic of British colonialism. This is a conclusion that is ultimately opposed to Viswanathan's initial premise. (ll)

Despite such a notable example of the adoption of the convert's perspective leading to the collapse of a view of conversion as capitulation to Western domination, other scholars, while attempting to take the two-way nature of missionary encounters seriously, still baulk at the unpalatable conclusion that those non-Western people who became Christians did so because they found Christianity to be intrinsically attractive. This conclusion is then avoided by arguing that the missionary-indigenous encounter, although a two-way experience, was rigged or skewed by the fundamental inequalities of the colonial context.

The most notable example of this interpretation of conversion is provided by the American anthropologists, Jean and John Comaroff, the most influential and hotly debated secular scholars currently writing in the field of mission studies. In the first of their promised three volumes analysing the 19th-century London Missionary Society mission among the southern Tswana peoples of South Africa, they write that, "The missionary encounter must be regarded as a two-sided historical process; as a dialectic that takes into account the social and cultural endowments of, and the consequences for, all the actors--missionaries no less than Africans." (12) However, this splendidly sensible statement is in practice undermined by the way in which the Comaroffs actually treat the subject of "conversion and conversation" in chapter 6 of their first volume. There, they discuss the process whereby the LMS missionaries--"these gentle soldiers of God's Kingdom"--became, in the long run "every bit as effective, in making subjects, as were the stormtroops of colonialism". (13) For the Comaroffs, the colonization of consciousness took place, not because dialogue was absent, but because it was stage-managed. Missionaries reformed the African "by engaging him in an argument whose terms they regulated, and whose structures bore the hegemonic forms, the taken-for-granted tropes, of the colonizing culture". (14) If this is still dialogue, it sounds like the dialogue of the deaf. However, in their second volume, partly in response to their numerous critics, the Comaroffs place greater emphasis on the fact that the Batswana, as well as the missionaries, possessed agency, and that this agency led in diverse directions, to both resistance and acceptance, and to a host of hybridizing selective appropriations in between. (15) Nevertheless, even in volume II, the consistent premise of the argument is that, "The point of colonial evangelism, after all, was to erase what was indigenously African and to replace it with something different". (6) Such a statement may make Christians today uneasy, but it is hard to deny that this is what most 19th century missionaries thought they were doing.

More dubious is the contention of volume I that missionaries so dominated the terms of the conversation that even the raw material of the conversation, language itself, became colonized. According to the Comaroffs, the Setstwana language was reduced from "primitive disorder" to "literate order", i.e. classified according to Western linguistic and ethnic models, expressed in clear grammatical form, and rendered as an appropriately submissive vehicle for presenting the word of God in writing. Everyday Setstwana terms, such as modumedi ("one who agrees") were "commandeered" and given new Christian meaning, in this case "believer" or "convert". For the Comaroffs, "Linguistic classification and translation were metonyms of an embracing process of 'conversion': the process of making difference into similarity, of reducing the lower order diversities of the non-European world to the universalistic categories of the West." (17) When all is said and done, therefore, the Comaroffs' model of Christian conversion remains that of proselytism: the goal of the missionary enterprise, and to some degree its effect, was religious standardization that imprinted the image of Western evangelical Christianity on the rest of the world.

The relocation of academic interest away from studies of the formal interactions between missionary societies and colonial governments towards the dynamics of conversion to Christianity is a welcome development, although the outcome of such reorientation is not necessarily in every case to undermine simplistic views of conversion as capitulation to colonial domination. However, before proceeding with our analysis of the dynamics of conversion to Christianity in modern missionary history, it is necessary to divert our attention from the interpretation of Christian conversion in a modern mission context to conversion as it is understood in the New Testament.

Conversion in the New Testament

Conversion itself as a noun (epistrophe) appears only once in the New Testament, in Acts 15:3, where Paul and Barnabas report to the Jewish believers in Phoenicia and Samaria "the conversion of the Gentiles". This usage indicates that the concept of conversion to Christianity was already something that made sense to Luke's readers. However, the verb epistrepho (to turn, return, turn around) appears thirty-six times. On eighteen occasions the meaning is a theological one that expresses the idea of turning in repentance from sin and towards God. (18) It has this meaning particularly in the book of Acts with reference to the first missionary endeavours of the early church, whether addressed to Jews or Gentiles. In Acts "conversion" involves repentance from sin (3:19, 26:20); a turning from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to Jesus as Lord (11:21, 26:18). There is also the concept of the new birth, or birth from above, which is central to the vocabulary of the Johannine literature and the First Letter of Peter. It is arguably present also in the Pauline corpus in modified form as the idea of being raised, or made alive, with Christ.

The point to be stressed is that whether the image employed is that of conversion, new birth, or spiritual resurrection, the actors involved are not simply the evangelist and the new believer or believers in Christ. All three images imply the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Luke's account of the first Gentile conversions in Acts stresses the initiative of the Spirit rather than human agency. It is the "angel of the Lord" who drives Philip into the wilderness to meet the solitary Ethiopian eunuch, and the Spirit who then compels him to approach the eunuch's chariot (Acts 8:26, 29). It is the sudden outpouring of the Spirit on Cornelius and his household that convinces Peter and the Jerusalem church that Gentiles are to be included in the household of God (10:44-7; 11:17-18). Paul and Barnabas report to the Antioch church at the end of their first missionary journey that God "had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles" (14:27). James convinces the council of Jerusalem that the turning of the Gentiles to God but not to Judaism is to be welcomed by citing the prophets to the effect that the ingathering of all the peoples is intrinsic to the eternal purpose of God (15:13-21). The Johannine, Petrine, and Pauline images lead to a similar conclusion: the rebirth or spiritual resurrection of the new believer cannot be engineered, either by him or herself, or by anyone else: more than human agency is required. Hence, whatever validity social scientific analyses of conversion may possess in relation to the general phenomenon of conversion from one religion to another, Christian theology cannot rest content with any understanding of conversion to Christ as purely a matter of human agency, whether on the part of the evangelist of the convert. The New Testament compels Christians to insist that conversion to Christ is an act in which the agency of the Spirit of God is primary, and that of the evangelist and the convert merely secondary.

With this foundational theological principle in mind, we can now return to the examination of the contentions made by those who see conversion to Christianity as a form of colonization of the mind. The essence of their case is the representation of the act of evangelization either (as claimed by Frawley and Mudimbe) as a one-way process, in which the missionary endeavours to implant within the mind of the hearer a normative set of beliefs, i.e. a new "religion" that replaces the previous one, or (as argued by the Comaroffs), as a lop-sided conversation in which the evangelist controls the linguistic terms.

In response to Frawley and Mudimbe, we may draw upon Andrew Walls's insistence that conversion (or, equally, new birth or resurrection) in the New Testament is not primarily about replacement but about the transformation and reorientation of humanity towards God. (19) The predominant emphasis is rather on the convert turning in repentance away from sin towards an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and Christ. This is the case whether it is Jews or Gentiles who are doing the turning. The idea of conversion as a substitution of one "religion" for another is not uppermost. It can hardly be so in the case of Jews, since the assumption in Acts is that Jews who turn to Jesus as the Christ will continue to be Jews and continue to worship Yahweh in the temple or synagogue. What conversion to Jesus as Lord means for Gentiles is a crucial issue that emerges in the course of Acts, and finds its initial resolution at the council of Jerusalem. For Gentiles, the "religious" implications of believing in Jesus were much starker than they were for Jews, since belief in Jesus as Lord and continued adherence to the gods of the Greek pantheon was incompatible.

Nevertheless, even in the Gentile case, the primary emphasis is on the direction in which peoples and their cultures turn, viz. to Christ, and not on the cultural background they must leave behind. Jewish society was familiar with the person of the proselyte: a pagan who had come to believe in the God of Israel and therefore turned his or her back on their own nation and affiliated himself or herself to the nation of Israel. Circumcision was the normal requirement for male proselytes in first-century Judaism. (20) It would have been conceivable for the first Jewish Christians to insist that the first Gentile believers should follow this pattern. That is precisely what the Judaizing party, as recorded in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, wanted. But Paul and Barnabas, and (after initial hesitation) Peter carried the day in the opposite direction. The principle was established that Gentile Christians were to live as Gentiles, and not as Jews. As Walls reminds us, Gentile Christians were not to be proselytes, i.e. carbon copies of Jewish believers, but converts who expressed allegiance to Christ within their own cultures. (21)

Contrary to the almost universal assumption today, therefore, the seeking of converts to Christ is not, or ought not to be, a matter of engaging in proselytism, of trying to persuade others to be, think, and behave exactly like us. This implies that there is a fundamental legitimacy to the quest of all those who have sought to express their allegiance to Christ as Lord within the categories of their own cultural and, indeed, religious background. Hence, to be a Hindu Christian or even a Muslim Christian ought not strike us as being any more problematic than the concept of a Gentile Christian was for the first Jerusalem church. This is not to deny that for a Hindu or a Muslim to be converted to Christ poses some extremely sensitive questions of which beliefs and practices have to be abandoned, and which may be retained, just as it did for the first Gentile believers. The essential issue, however, is the same, and Western Christians, who are the spiritual descendants of those Gentile converts, ought to permit Hindu or Muslim seekers after Christ no less flexibility than the council of Jerusalem permitted to the first Gentile converts.

It remains the case that for Christians there is a message to be transmitted, a Christocentric gospel that has been revealed and has to be defended against all distortions and competitors (Gal. 1:6-9). Yet, in the very act of proclaiming that gospel across a cultural frontier, it is not simply the outer packaging of the message that needs to be adapted. The process of translating the message into a new cultural medium will result in a message that carries accents and tones which it did not carry before, even though there must be sufficient continuity with previous formulations of the message for it to be recognizably the same message. (22) The gospel proclaimed to Gentiles in Athens or Corinth was neither discontinuous with nor identical to that proclaimed to Jews in Jerusalem of Antioch. Moreover, the evangelists involved in such proclamation found themselves and their theological perceptions to be fundamentally changed in the process. Peter was never the same again after his experience in Caesarea, when his understanding of the purpose of God in Christ was immeasurably broadened. Similarly, it could be argued that Paul's evangelistic encounters with a Greek culture that placed pre-eminent value on wisdom led hit to a deeper comprehension of the cross as the revelation of the "foolish" wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1), even though it is clear that he continued to draw, as a Jew, on his own religious tradition of the divine wisdom.

Reverse conversions

In congruence with this New Testament pattern, scholars of modern Christian missions are beginning to write about the "conversion of missionaries", i.e. about the fundamental and transformative effect of immersion in alien cultures on the mental and theological frameworks of many missionaries. In some instances, such as the religious pilgrimages travelled on Chinese soil by the Welsh Baptist, Timothy Richard, or, still more controversially, by the American Presbyterian, Pearl S. Buck, these "reverse conversions" could lead missionaries to theological positions that are apparently subversive of orthodoxy.(23) However, it would be misleading to isolate such contentious examples and, in so doing, imply that the vast majority of missionaries remained unaffected by their experience, and obstinately committed to rehearsing the precise formulae and methods they had imbibed in seminary or Bible school (though it goes without saying that this was, and is, true of some). Evangelical Christians, because of their proper concern to preserve the good deposit of the faith, have tended to be particularly hesitant about admitting the dynamically interactive and two-way nature of all true missionary encounters. They have sometimes been slow to realize that a primary focus on the substitutionary death of Christ for the penalty of human sin may not be a wholly intelligible or even theologically adequate interpretation of the gospel for some peoples from a primal religious background. (24)

One evangelical who came more rapidly to this conclusion was J. H. Lorrain, a Baptist missionary in the Lushai Hills (now Mizoram) in north-east India in the early 20th century. Within ten years of arriving in the territory, Lorrain could report in 1912:
   Our first message as soon as we could speak the language, was of a
   Saviour from sin. But the people had no sense of sin and felt no
   need for such a Saviour. Then we found a point of contact. We
   proclaimed Jesus as the vanquisher of the Devil--as the One who had
   bound the "strong man" and taken away from him "all his armour
   wherein he trusted", and so had made it possible for his slaves to
   be free. This, to the Lushais, was "Good News" indeed and exactly
   met their great need. (25)

Some seventy years before, Peter Wagner, a decidedly anti-charismatic American missionary in Bolivia, arrived at much the same conclusion, with consequences that are now well-known.

Lorrain's exposure to the reality of cross-cultural communication led him to the perception that the formulation of the gospel customary in Western evangelicalism was neither as effective nor as authentically biblical as he had formerly supposed. (26) Today, Mizoram is one of the most highly Christianized regions of the world. Missionary speech may indeed appear to be "pre-regulated", to use Mudimbe's term, but conversion on a significant scale has usually taken place only when the pre-regulation has been abandoned, and missionaries have been prepared to allow their encounters with indigenous peoples to change both them and the formulation of their message.

Translation: exploring cultures on their own terms

We turn, secondly, to the claim of Jean and John Comaroff that the act of translation of Christian vocabulary into vernacular languages necessarily commits the indigenous convert to the acceptance of an alien conceptual framework.

This is a questionable representation of what is involved in the process of language learning and translation. To learn a language as a stranger in a host culture involves vulnerability and openness. Those who attempt to dictate the linguistic terms of the encounter will be very poor language learners. Doubtless, some missionaries were that but on the whole missionaries stand out from the surrounding assortment of colonial representatives by their absorbing commitment to acquire genuine fluency and understanding in the vernacular. Similarly, as Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have emphasized, the process of biblical translation impels the translator (even if unconsciously or unwillingly) towards an acceptance of the fundamental equality of all cultures in the sight of God: it involves a search for dynamic equivalences, and hence the necessity to explore cultures on their own terms. (27) Further questions arise about the Comaroffs' argument if we view the dynamics of translation from the perspective of the indigenous converts. Let us consider, first, evangelization in New Testament times.

Luke tells us that the Gentile converts in Caesarea and Antioch heard a message about Jesus which proclaimed that he was Lord of all (panton kyrios; Acts 10:36) or Lord (kyrios; Acts 11:20). Despite the recent argument of Andrew Walls that the proclamation of Jesus in Antioch as kyrios rather than as christos-Messiah--represented a bold innovation of the transposing of the gospel into Hellenistic thought-forms, (28) New Testament scholars now inform us that the term kyrios was well rooted in Palestinian Jewish culture, and that lordship had been ascribed to Jesus as early as the first Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem church. (29) Nevertheless, Walls's argument can perhaps be recast as follows. Whatever meaning of kyrios may have been uppermost in the minds of Peter and the Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene who preached Jesus to the Gentiles in Antioch, it is clear that what those Gentiles in Caesarea and Antioch heard to such signal effect was indeed a startling claim about the status of Jesus of Nazareth as one to whom could be applied, in a unique and exclusive sense, the term currently employed to refer to cult divinities, and, by extension through the imperial cult, to the Roman emperor. The first Jewish Christians acknowledged Jesus as kyrios. How far and at what stage that title began to imply ascription of divinity rather than simply the status of a messianic king is debatable. However, when received into the Hellenistic world, the proclamation of Jesus as kyrios or, still more, as panton kyrios, acquired new and portentous layers of meaning. (30) A similar argument has been advanced in relation to the apostle Paul's inclusion in the letter to the Philippians (2:9-11 and 3:20) of exalted imperial language about Jesus, which invited Gentiles to regard hito as infinitely superior to the emperor. (31) Firstcentury Jewish Christians were not afraid to apply to Jesus titles which, though well rooted in the scriptural traditions of Israel, to a Gentile audience carried a distinct resonance determined by the context of the Roman empire.

In these seminal instances drawn from the history of earliest Christianity, therefore, we find a paradigm, not of Christian evangelists dominating the terms of missionary encounters by the imposition of alien meanings on indigenous terms, but rather of a preparedness to use language about Jesus which invited interpretation by the indigenous hearers in ways that led to a less ambiguous ascription of divine status to him, and hence to the clarification and enrichment of Christian doctrine.

These foundational New Testament examples are concerned with translation, not in the narrow sense of translating from one language into another, but in the broader sense of the communication of a central theological concept from one cultural medium to another. However, a similar principle can be found at work in modern missionary contexts, where translation in the narrow linguistic sense has provided the conceptual environment within which conversion to Christ has taken place.

Historians of modern Africa now note with some frequency the liberative potential of vernacular biblical narrative, especially the story of ancient Israel, for African peoples oppressed by slave-traders, colonial authorities or white settlers. Many of the first converts in 19th century Africa were saddled with Western names in what looks like a vindication of the Comaroff thesis of conversion as a capitulation via linguistic engineering to an alien identity. Thus, the former Yoruba slave, Ajayi, freed by the British navy from a Portuguese slave ship and resettled in the recaptives' colony of Sierra Leone in 1822, was given on his baptism the name Samuel Crowther in honour of a member of the home committee of the Church Missionary Society, the Revd Samuel Crowther of Christ Church, Newgate, in London. The fact that the Yoruba Samuel Crowther appeared before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1851 resplendent in clerical black frock-coat as a trophy of the missionary enterprise, before being consecrated in 1864 as the first African Anglican bishop, might appear to lend further credence to the Comaroffs' case. (32) Yet, by becoming "Samuel'" the young Ajayi joined his own story of literal and spiritual redemption with that of the Samuel who was the child of promise and the architect of a godly kingdom. When Crowther led the CMS mission party to his native Yorubaland and rediscovered his own mother, Afala, she was baptized in 1848 as Hannah. The anthropologist J.D.Y. Peel comments:
   As Afala bore Ajayi in the flesh, now Samuel reaffiliated himself
   to Hannah in the spirit. He was no longer just any Samuel, a
   Samuel named for an obscure London vicar or the bearer of a name
   without intrinsic meaning, but Samuel, son of Hannah. He thus
   fashioned a new narrative for himself, which is the more powerful
   because it is also an old narrative. (33)

For many individual Africans and African peoples as collectivities, as also for members of the scheduled castes of modern India, part of the attraction of Christianity has been its foundation upon a universal scriptural narrative that held up a mirror and promise of redemption to their own local experience of marginality or oppression. It was a narrative which, in a way that could never be the case with the non-vernacular Qu'ran, invited the hearer or reader to step right into its pages, and which drew the spheres of biblical and contemporary history together. As John Lonsdale puts it, "The Bible, telling of a small tribe at the centre of history", could inspire Africans "to counter-attack, to project on the world's stage the modern normality of their own particular ethnicity". (34) In a similar way, Andrew Wingate's study of group conversion to Christianity of Dalits in late 20th century Vellore draws attention to the importance of both Old and New Testament narratives for the victims of caste oppression. In a Hindu context where human inequality is a fundamental premise of social organization, the portrait of Jesus in the gospels as the friend, protector, and healer of the poor had a vivid immediacy. (35)

Acceding to a new path of wisdom for the community

What is emerging from a number of recent studies is an emphasis on translation as a broader and more populist process than the technical business of producing authorized vernacular versions of the Bible, crucially important though that endeavour is. Most Christian converts in modern Africa heard the gospel from other Africans, many of them young people who were themselves young in the faith. Historians now describe the first African churches of the colonial era, whether Catholic or Protestant, as a youth movement. (36) These young African evangelists characteristically presented the gospel through story, based on their own loose rendering of official translations. Thus, a Presbyterian missionary in Kikuyuland in 1918 doubted whether missionaries needed to translate evangelistic storybooks into Kikuyu, since Kikuyu evangelists were making their own translations of stories from the Swahili Bible and were so "skilled in giving the gospel narratives in their own words, fitted to the understanding of the villagers". (37)

In such hands, the translated message was very far from conforming to the Comaroffs' stereotype of the infusion of alien meanings into indigenous terms. On the contrary, the gospel proclaimed by the young Kikuyu converts (or "readers", as they were known) was an indigenous rhetoric. Its meaning or application was the subject of intense argument between Kikuyu Christians, and led to quite diverse forms of Christianity that continue to mark the Kenyan Christian landscape today. (38) The language of this debate could also be used to challenge the traditional preferences of wealthy elders. The early Kikuyu converts called the gospel Uhoro wa Ngai--the Word of God. However, whereas European missionaries thought of uhoro in conceptual terms as the Logos, the eternal Word of God, in Kikuyu uhoro meant equally "language", "case", "story", "message", or "verdict". The gospel as uhoro wa Ngai was thus a polemic or argument. Converts who acceded to this argument were deemed to have "believed". But, like many other languages, Kikuyu did not express the variety of abstract, existential "belief" demanded by post-Enlightenment Christianity. The Kikuyu word translated as "believe" was itikia, "to give assent to". It connoted the approving sounds of collective endorsement made by a group of village elders persuaded by a convincing argument, and murmuring "Eeeh". To "believe in the gospel", kuitikia Uhoro wa Ngai, thus meant more than the inward act of personal faith of Western Protestantism. It meant acceding to a public argument, converting to a set of premises laid out to form "a reason that convinces", and a new path of wisdom for the community. (39)

The end result of such a process of lay translation of the Christian message was not simply a form of Christianity which had high potential for indigenity. It was also an understanding of what faith in Christ means that may have been closer to biblical norms than the individualized and conceptualized understanding held by the European missionaries. This discussion of the dynamics of popular communication of the gospel has a further implication that bears upon our earlier emphasis on the agency of the Holy Spirit in conversion. The final section of this article offers some tentative reflections on ways in which such interpretations by contemporary historians of conversion to Christianity from the converts' perspective might be reconciled with the insistence of theology that conversion to Christ requires the agency of the Spirit.

I have argued that the process of conversion to Christianity was less tightly regulated by the missionary than many critics suppose and, indeed, many missionaries desired. Evangelization conducted by indigenous agents in a vernacular medium defies control by those who initiate the mission process in any particular region. From the beginning of Christian expansion in New Testament times, the message of the gospel has been heard, received or rejected within the intellectual categories embodied in the language of the host culture. Converts have read their own stories into the pages of scripture and applied biblical narratives to their own situations. AII this implies a degree of open-endedness and unpredictability in Christian missionary encounters that is both creative and dangerous. Converts have the potential to enrich or correct Christian doctrine by redressing the imbalances intrinsic to the missionary's culturally conditioned understanding of the faith. Equally, however, converts have the potential to distort orthodoxy by filtering out emphases that have less resonance with their own cultural environment. Converts have responded to what they have seen in the gospel and not necessarily to what missionaries thought they ought to see in it. These observations suggest several conclusions.

First, it is necessary to reiterate the simple point that not all conversions to Christianity represent conversions to Christ. The visible church and the eternal body of Christ are not identical, though evangelical Christians in particular have been anxious to make the two correspond as closely as possible. Academic commentators have noted how obsessively concerned missionaries have been with the two inter-related issues of how to discern the genuineness of conversion, and how to avert the threat of "backsliding". In an attempt to weed out the bogus runners, missionaries have often erected all sorts of educational and baptismal hurdles in the path of converts. (49) Christian, and especially Protestant evangelization in primal societies has often proceeded symbiotically with the acquisition of literacy, as is symbolized by the nomenclature of "readers" for the first converts in East Africa. But evangelical missionaries, even as they have been eager to encourage the capacity to read the scriptures, have been wary of skin-deep converts who have been more interested in the medium than the message, i.e. more keen to become literate than to accept the truth enshrined in the biblical text. The literary scholar, Vanessa Smith, has described how early 19th century evangelical missionaries to Polynesia, in order to deal with a situation in which their treasured gift of literacy was being eagerly espoused as the white man's occult power, found it necessary to erect a distinction between false and true readers. The false readers were those who did not progress beyond memorization and mimicry of the text, whilst the true readers or converts displayed a capacity to interpret and appropriate the text for themselves. Smith observes, "It is appropriation, paradoxically, which demonstrates a grasp of essential meaning ... Where the false converts held to the letter of the printed word, the true convert recontextualizes the biblical Word". (41) She notes that by such a distinction between mere repetition and true literacy missionaries had, somewhat unwillingly, surrendered the prerogative of interpretation to the convert. (42)

Smith's astute observations point towards our second concluding reflection. The true readers in her analysis were those whom the missionaries judged to have been truly converted, i.e. those bona again of the Spirit. They were identified by their capacity to apply the scriptures to their own situation. For them, unlike, the false readers, scripture had become a living word, and was personal, contemporary and contextually specific in its thrust. Such an emphasis is, of course, congruent with the classic Reformed understanding of the relationship of word and Spirit in the drawing of people to faith in Christ. Faith, insisted Calvin, is no mete intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christ, but rather "a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit."(43) Without the breath of the Spirit, the proclaimed word of the gospel has no power to convict of save. However, when the Spirit breathes upon the word, hearts and minds are turned towards Christ, and, either individually or corporately, there is the deep acceptance, as expressed by that eloquent "Eeeh" of the Kikuyu elders as they become persuaded of the rhetoric of Christ, that the word of the gospel is indeed for us, here and now in our particular context. Smith's argument, though itself wholly secular, thus carries for the Christian mind the theological implication that genuine conversion to Christ, as distinct from mere conversion to Christianity as an exotic implanted religion, will be marked in some measure by inculturation. This is because authentic inculturation is no more nor less than a preparedness to hear, receive and interpret the word of Christ in scripture as it addresses us in our particular context and in the distinctive cadences of our own language.

Our third summative observation may appear problematic. Any understanding of conversion to Christ as an event that requires the intervention of the Spirit of God immediately raises the dilemma of why that intervention does not invariably, or at least with uniform frequency, accompany the proclamation of the word of Christ. We may be able to suggest plausible cultural and sociological answers to the question of why primal religionists in the north-eastern states of India have responded eagerly to the gospel, whereas the vast majority of Hindus in the remainder of India so far have not, but can we supply a wholly satisfying theological answer? I fear we cannot, and Christian academics attempting to eke out a living from the stony terrain of mission studies generally confine themselves to the more straightforward task of tilling the cultural and sociological soil, while leaving the big issue of Christian theodicy to the theologians (though increasingly they too seek to avoid it by denying the soteriological necessity of conversion).

It is not difficult to perceive why there is not an invariably efficacious bestowal of the Spirit whenever the gospel is proclaimed. If such were to be the case, church growth would, admittedly, be a simple matter. Conversion would be guaranteed so long as the evangelist got the message right. In practice, therefore, the agency of the Spirit would disappear, for it would be an assumed and wholly forgettable part of the equation. All would depend upon the theological accuracy and homiletical competence of the evangelist. Any potential convert who carne within the faithful evangelist's line of tire would succumb. There would be little or no scope for that convert, in his or her turn, to make the message authentically their own, for that could imperil the automatic relationship of word and Spirit and bring the steamroller of Christian expansion to a halt with a judder. Conversion to Christ would indeed have become the colonization of the mind, and the New Testament vision of a richly diverse new creation united in Christ would be greatly impoverished.

What is much more problematic is how Christians can make theological sense of the seemingly unavoidable reality that God has permitted conversion to Christ to be in some measure contingent upon social and cultural context. Drawing the distinction between conversion to Christ and conversion to Christianity may soften the dilemma, but it does not remove it altogether unless we are to follow modern Asian theologians, such as the late Stanley Samartha, who was prepared to say that conversion to God in Christ in settings such as India need not imply conversion to Christianity. (44) We are therefore forced to construct a theology that places the structures of economy, culture and society--and even of "religion"--within the cosmic arena of spiritual contestation in which the principalities and powers are at work. Those principalities and powers are already subject to the authority of the exalted Christ, and yet are still, for a time, active in their opposition to the gracious purposes of God for his world (Ephesians 1:21-2; 3:8-10; 6:1 2). The perils of such a theology of spiritual warfare ate manifest. All too easily in the past and even today it has led Christians into forms of crass and implicitly racist territorialism, in which particular regions of the map are branded as being peculiarly subject to satanic dominion. Such dangers are inherent in the language employed, for example, in the article on the "10/40 Window" in a recent evangelical dictionary of mission: "From a careful analysis of the 10/40 Window, it appears that Satan and his forces have established a unique territorial stronghold that has restrained the advance of the gospel into this part of the world. (45) No theology of the powers that explicitly or implicitly divides the world into supposed territories of darkness and supposed territories of light is acceptable. Nevertheless, some kind of integration of a theology of the role of the Spirit in conversion, with the reality of the uneven spread of Christianity has to be attempted. If Christians decline that challenge, the alternatives open to them are either to abandon the global evangelistic commission as an anachronistic relic of the colonial era, or to reduce Christian conversion to the colonization of the mind by human persuasion.

Perhaps, it is sufficient to conclude this article with the reminder that the sovereign unpredictability of the wind of the Spirit is integral to the biblical witness (John 3:8). It is also borne out by the witness of history. The real breakthrough of Christianity to the Gentile world was provoked, apparently fortuitously, by the scattering of the Jerusalem church following the death of Stephen (Acts 11:19). In the early years of the 4th century, nobody would have predicted that the heartland of Christianity for the next millennium would lie on and even beyond the northern and western frontiers of the Roman empire, amongst peoples then still barbarian and uncivilized, and a far cry from the cultured and urban(e) Christianity of the Mediterranean world. In 1910, when representatives of western Protestant missions gathered at the world missionary conference in Edinburgh to coordinate their strategy for the evangelization of the world in their generation, they expected the greatest triumphs of Christian conversion to come from the ancient civilizations of India, Japan and China, and not from the supposedly primitive and sparsely populated continent of Africa. What further surprises the Spirit has in store for the church cannot, by definition, be predicted. We can be confident, however, that the Christianity of the future is going to look decreasingly like the product of colonization by the Western mind.


(1) David Frawley, "The Missionary Position", BJP: News Reports, feb1799.htm (last accessed 19.12.2002). For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article, I am indebted to David Burnett, Robert E. Frykenberg, John Lonsdale, and Steve Walton.

(2) For an authoritative recent survey of debates over Christian conversion in modern India, see Sebastian Kim, In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversion in India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2002.

(3) Gauri Viswanathan, Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity. and Belief, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 87. For an argument that the very notion of a Hindu "majority" in India is a myth created in the interests of fundamentalist elites see R.E. Frykenberg, "The Concept of 'Majority' as a Devilish Force in the Polities of Modern India", Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 25, 1987, pp. 267-74.

(4) Leon De Kock, Civilizing Barbarians: Missionary Narrative and African Textual Response in Nineteenth-Century South Africa, Johannesburg, Witwatersrand University Press and Lovedale Press, 1996, p. 14.

(5) Edward Said, Orientalism, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

(6) V.Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 47.

(7) Ibid., p. 48. See the comments of J.D.Y. Peel, Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2000, pp. 4-6.

(8) V.Y. Mudimbe, The Idea of Africa, London, James Currey, & Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 109.

(9) See Robin Horton, "African Conversion", Africa 41,1971, pp. 85-108, and "On the Rationality of Conversion", Africa 45, 1975, pp. 219-35, 373-99; Robert W. Hefner, ed., Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation, Berkeley, Los Angeles, & Oxford, University of California Press, 1993, ch. 1.

(10) Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, London, Faber & Faber, 1990, pp. ix, x, 1. Viswanathan draws on Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1971, p. 57.

(11) Viswanathan, Outside the Fold, pp. 88, 93, 110-11.

(12) Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 54. See also the second volume in the trilogy, Of Revelation and Revolution: The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 1997.

(13) Comaroffs, Of Revelation and Revolution, I, p. 200.

(14) Ibid., p. 199.

(15) Comaroffs, Of Revelation and Revolution, II, pp. 47-53, 117. See the comments by Charles Piot and Mark Auslander, and the responses by the Comaroffs in Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 3, 2001, pp. 3, 87, 113-16. This is a special issue of the journal devoted wholly to engagement with the Comaroffs, especially Of Revelation and Revolution, volume II; it reproduces papers delivered at the December 1998 meetings of the American Anthropological Association.

(16) Comaroffs, Of Revelation and Revolution, II, p. 117.

(17) Comaroffs, Of Revelation and Revolution, I, pp. 218, 221.

(18) Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols, Grand Rapids and Exeter, Zondervan and Paternoster, 1975, I, p. 355.

(19) See Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Maryknoll, NY, and Edinburgh, Orbis Books and T&T Clark, 1996, p. 28.

(20) J. Nolland, "Uncircumcised Proselytes?", Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 12/2, 1981, pp. 173-94.

(21) Walls, op. cit, pp..51-2; and his The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith, Maryknoll, NY, and Edinburgh, Orbis Books and T&T Clark, 2002, pp. 67-8.

(22) See Walls, Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, p. 80.

(23) Ibid., pp. 236-58; Xi Lian, The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932, University Park, PA, Pennsylvania University Press, 1997, pp. 95-128. See also Lewis Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 97-9, 194; Steven Kaplan, "The Africanization of Missionary Christianity: History and Typology", Journal of Religion in Africa 16, 1986, pp. 166-86, especially pp. 180-2.

(24) However, in some primal contexts, e.g. the Orang Olu of Sarawak, an emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement has fitted primal religious categories extremely well because of the prominence of sacrifice and notions of the grave consequences of the infringement of taboos in such societies. I owe this point to my research student, Revd Tan Jin Huat.

(25) Baptist Missionary Society Annual Report, 1913, p. 2, cited in C. L. Hminga, The Life and Witness of the Churches in Mizoram, Serkawn, Mizoram, Baptist Church of Mizoram, 1987, p. 57.

(26) See C. Peter Wagner, "My Pilgrimage in Mission", International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 23/4, 1999, p. 166.

(27) Walls, Missionary Movement, pp. 26-42; Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Maryknoll, NY, Orbis, 1989, pp. 192-209; idem, Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process: The African Dimension, London, Marshall Pickering, 1993, pp. 73-116.

(28) Walls, Missionary Movement, pp. 52-3; idem, Cross-Cultural Process, pp. 79-80.

(29) William Horbury, Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ, London, SCM, 1998, pp. 112-19; Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 2nd edition, Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1998. Walls's interpretation appears to reflect an older and now largely discredited tradition of scholarship derived from W. Bousset, Kyrios Christos [1913], new edition, Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 1970.

(30) For a discussion of the origins of the ascription of lordship to Jesus in relation to the Lukan writings see J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, The Anchor Bible vol. 28, New York, Doubleday, 198 t, pp. 200-204. Fitzmyer tends to discount the role of missionary encounters and to posit the transfer by the first Palestinian Christians of the title kyrios from Yahweh to Jesus. He notes, however, that such a transfer "is not yet to be regarded as an expression of divinity" (p. 203), which is an admission that leaves the door open to the formative role of the missionary context.

(31) See Peter Oakes, Philippians: From People to Letter, SNTS Monograph Series 110, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 129-74.

(32) See Walls, Missionaty Movement, p. 104. For the original Samuel Crowther (1769-1829) see Donald M. Lewis, ed., The Blackwell Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860, 2 vols, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, I, p. 277.

(33) J.D.Y. Peel, "For Who Hath Despised The Day of Small Things? Missionary Narratives and Historical Anthropology", Comparative Studies in Society and Anthropology 37/3, 1995, p. 597.

(34) John Lonsdale, "Jomo Kenyatta, God and the Modern World", in Jan-Georg Deutsch, Heike Schmidt and Peter Probst, eds, Afi4can Modernities: Entangled Meanings in Current Debate, Oxford, James Currey, 2002, p. 45. For an important exposition of the significance of the vernacular Bible for the formation of national identities, see Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

(35) Andrew Wingate, The Church and Conversion: A Study of Recent Conversions to and from Christianity in the Tamil Area of South India, Delhi, ISPCK, 1997, p. 85.

(36) Bengt Sundkler, and Christopher Steed, A History of the Church in Africa, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 88-9; John Lonsdale, "Mission Christianity and Settler Colonialism in East Africa", in Holger Bernt Hansen and Michael Twaddle, eds, Christian Missionaries and the State in the Third World, Oxford, James Currey, 2002, p. 199.

(37) Derek Peterson, "The Rhetoric of the Word: Bible Translation and Mau Mau in Central Kenya", in Brian Stanley, ed., Missions, Nationalism, and the End of Empire, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, forthcoming 2003.

(38) John Lonsdale, "Kikuyu Christianities: A History of Intimate Diversity", in David Maxwell and Ingrid Lawrie, eds, Christianity and the African Imagination: Essays in Honour of Adrian Hastings, Leiden, Brill, 2002, pp. 157-97.

(39) This paragraph draws heavily on Peterson, "The Rhetoric of the Word".

(40) Lonsdale, "Mission Christianity and Settler Colonialism", p. 199.

(41) Vanessa Smith, Literary Culture and the Pacific: Nineteenth-Century Textual Encounters, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 2-3.

(42) Ibid., p. 5.

(43) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, London, SCM, 1961, III.ii.7, p. 551. In llI.ii.8 Calvin refutes the notion of the schoolmen that there is a mere intellectual assent to the truth of scripture that may be termed "unformed faith"; for Calvin all faith depends on the witness of the Spirit.

(44) E. See Klootwijk, Commitment and Openness: The Interreligious Dialogue and Theology of Religions in the Work of Stanley J. Samartha, Zoetermeer, Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 1992, pp. 308-10.

(45) Article on "10/40 Window", in A. Scott Moreau, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Grand Rapids and Carlisle, Baker Book House and Paternoster, 2000, p. 938. The "10/40 Window" refers to the 'window' between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator, and which spans the globe from West Africa to Asia.

Dr Brian Stanley is Director of the Henry Martyn Centre for the study of mission and world Christianity, in Cambridge. England, and a Fellow of St Edmund's College, University of Cambridge.
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