Books I Have Read: New Foundations for Appreciating Africa

For Westerners to begin to grasp the impact of what they say and do in Africa requires a profound knowledge of what is already there

Jim Harries is a prolific writer and thinker on mission issues. While I don’t always agree with everything he writes, I believe that he makes valuable contribution in a number of areas and that his work should be more widely read than it is. New Foundations for Appreciating Africa, Jim’s latest book is possibly his least accessible work, but it is probably the most important thing he has put into print.

New Foundations for Appreciating Africa is a large format paperback, just over a hundred pages long with extensive footnotes and a good reference section. It costs a little over £12 if you buy it from Amazon or you can download a pdf for free here.

At the heart of this book is one simple concept; the Western world has pushed religion and the supernatural so far to the margins of our society and thought, that our world view (even that of Christians) is essentially secular. However, Africans live in a world where secularism has not triumphed and they are very aware of a spiritual dimension to life. This means that Westerners, including missionaries are ill-equipped to discus important issues in an African context. Even the language that missionaries use and fundamental concepts such as religion do not adequately describe the situation or communicate within the African world-view.

Jim develops this central idea carefully and in detail and goes on to explore how it impacts relations between the Africa and the West in some detail. As I mentioned above, this is not a particularly accessible book, it needs to be read closely and carefully and I found myself having to read some paragraphs a couple of times to make sure I was following. This is not a complaint; some books are by their nature complex and need to be read slowly.

This is an important book and deserves to be widely read. Among other things, it provides an academic underpinning to some of Jim’s more popular works on vulnerable mission (see here and here, for reviews). The book’s argument is worked out against the background of Luo and Swahili speaking East Africa, however, I think that the implications are much broader. The Enlightenment settlement which marginalised the spiritual world in the West is breaking down and the categories and language that worked well in modernism need to be rethought as we move into a post-modern, post-Christian, post-everything world. Evangelists working in British cities might benefit just as much from this book as its intended audience of cross-cultural mission workers and thinkers.

Who should read this book? It’s relatively short, but it is dense and it does take a time to work through. If, for whatever reason, you are not up to having your thinking stretched, you should probably avoid it. That being said, anyone who has read Jim’s other works, would be well advised to get hold of this as would anyone working in the field of mission anthropology. It certainly should be on the reading list for any undergraduate curriculum in cross-cultural communication and those with a more general interest in philosophy and apologetics would appreciate it, too.

A quote from the introduction, to close:

African people are not “blank slates” waiting to be written on by Westerners. That is why for Westerners to begin to grasp the impact of what they say and do in Africa requires a profound knowledge of what is already there. The new will not simply displace the old. The new will engage the old. Recognition of the “African world” is a pressing necessity. Secularism, because it easily regards traditional african beliefs as bunkum, is totally incapable of it. Secularism cannot engage what it perfunctorily disregards. Because European languages are these days deeply secular, such recognition requires the use of distinct languages (a different language in Africa as against in the West) an so an introduction of a process of translation to adjudicate communication between the West and Africa.

Disclaimer; I was provided with a copy of this book free of charge by the author in exchange for this review. Nevertheless I have attempted to write a fair and unbiased way; if I thought it was a stinker, I’d have said so.

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2 replies on “Books I Have Read: New Foundations for Appreciating Africa”

I wonder, Eddie, if you would comment on an observation? It feels to me that your assessment or opinion of Vulnerable Mission ideas has moderated a bit. Would you say that’s at all accurate? If so, what may have caused you to feel more positive towards VM? Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood and you don’t feel your opinion has really changed much?

I don’t think my thoughts have changed. I believe that there is much that is good in vulnerable mission, but I also believe that it’s not as original or as universally applicable as it is presented to be.

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