Mystic causes

In an article on the BBC New website, an African journalist wrote:

“It is impossible to cultivate a spirit of innovation and transformation when people believe themselves helpless about their plight.” (Source: Is Nigeria being punished by God? by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani)

In the article, the author tells of a Nigeria state governor who blamed sin for an outbreak of cholera.

“People have turned away from God… that is just the cause of this outbreak as far as I am concerned,”

The author goes on to say that this belief is prevalent in Nigeria, not just among politicians. That matches my experience. Many Africans, certainly not all, blame most  problems on supernatural or mystic causes as though unsanitary conditions have nothing to do with outbreaks of disease. Others, like Adaobi, find that approach problematic. Some of them, like some Westerners, think that religion is the problem. 

But does reading the Bible cause people put their trust in mystic causes or believe that they are helpless about their plight?  Some people mught read the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 and come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do but sit back and trust that God will magically intervene to make them rich (even though the chapter itself contains language that contradicts that conclusion). But is that what usually happens? I don’t think so. 

The Protestant work ethic was developed by people who were very serious about the Bible, God’s promises, his punishment of sin, and his blessings for obedience. Mensah Otabil, the founder and leader of the International Central Gospel Church in Accra, is also serious about God’s blessings coming through faith, yet he preaches that God calls us to personal responsibility. According to some, his message has given rise to a new entrepreneurial class in Ghana which has also had no small influence on economic growth and politics. Evaluations of the effects of Bible translation in Ghana find that people to read the Bible in their own languages have greater confidence and they are more likely to take initiative including for their own economic well-being. These results are the opposite of what one would expect if the Bible message caused people to kick back and just rely on God giving them mystic blessings.

In an article in Christianity Today, the renowned American sociologist, Peter Berger, noted that:

The message that most Pentecostals hear, far from preaching passive acceptance, encourages behavior which requires a lot of effort: hard work, saving, giving up alcohol and sexual promiscuity, and so on. If advocacy of this behavior is linked to a promise of, if not great wealth, at any rate material betterment, this is not a false promise.

Research by secular scholars has found that African churches preaching faith and against the sins of womanizing, alcohol and “worldly pleasures” are more effective at reducing urban poverty in Africa than the aid agencies operating in the same cities.

The Seed Company (a Bible translation organization) has found that those who read translations in their own languages feel empowered to take better actions with regard to their problems.

We translate the Bible because it’s message does the opposite of a mass opiate – it causes people to take eternal responsibility, starting right now.

Feeding birds

Around Abidjan Center

A view of the area around the building where we work in Abidjan

A man living around the place where we work in Abidjan feeds the birds morning and evening. When one of our office staff asked him why, he said that it brings him good luck and increased income. In fact, he spends 2,000 CFA francs per day feeding the birds, which is about $3.50, or about $105 per month. Many Africans believe in mystic or magic causality. In this way of thinking, the causes of good and bad things in our life is solely related to what happens in the spirit realm. It is not dissimilar to ideas like karma.

These beliefs would be quaint, but they keep people from what really creates wealth as recommended in the Bible. The book of Proverbs teaches hard work, honesty, being wise in relationships, getting good advice, being generous and trusting in God.

Unfortunately, many churches in Africa are getting caught up in the Prosperity Gospel. Some forms of the Prosperity Gospel teach purely mystic causes of prosperity. In this teaching financial stability or success comes from tithing, blind faith, and direct divine intervention, but not from hard work or the other teachings of the book of Proverbs. In some cases prosperity teaching effectively erases the teachings of the book of Proverbs. It’s another reason to translate that book into more African languages.

I have a small collection of humor about the mystic prosperity gospel as one finds it on Facebook. Here’s one.

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When we were working on translation into the Cerma language of Burkina Faso, Dayle and I both got pink eye(conjunctivitis). One of our friends saw the condition and told us that we had Apollo. We thought that was a rather strange name for a disease, but what did we know. We asked around and discovered that there had been a widespread outbreak of pink eye in West Africa at the same time that Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. Local urban legend (yes, that happens in Africa too), linked the two events and ever since West Africans have called the disease Apollo.

Blessings come from God's Great Covenant - Hair salon.

Blessings come from God’s Great Covenant – Hair salon.

The association made between the Apollo 11 moon landing and an outbreak of conjunctivitis might seem strange to you, but keep an open mind for a minute. Different cultures have different ideas about the causes of events. We in the West have largely adopted the enlightenment idea that causes are physical, not mystical. We think that science completely explains causes. Many Africans accept mystic causality. If you think that education will change that, you are wrong. Studies have shown a slightly higher percentage of educated Ghanaians accept mystic causality than do uneducated Ghanaians. But don’t roll your eyes. Consider the following illustration of Ghanaian thinking which I have adapted from  well-known Ghanaian churchman Peter K. Sarpong.

A boy always walks to school following a certain path. He always goes with his friend who comes to his house and they walk together. One morning, his friend comes a few minutes later than usual, and so they set off late. As they are walking their usual route, a large tree falls on the boys, killing them.

A westerner will look for a scientifically sound cause for the tragedy.  So we might say that the boys died because recent, heavy rains had loosened the earth around the roots of the tree, so it fell. A Ghanaian might agree, but he would make other observations. He wold note that the boys set off late that morning. If they had been on time, the tree would have fallen after they passed. So what made them set off late? Also, the tree’s roots were loose, but why didn’t it fall an hour before or an hour after? Why didn’t the rain come more slowly in a way that would not loosen the roots? The questions go on and on. It does not take long for such questions to defy answers from a perspective of pure, scientific causality. Many Ghanaians conclude that even though scientific causality explains some things, it cannot bring answers that really satisfy.

This sign asks a question about causality

This sign asks a question about causality

Working effectively across cultures means not dismissing or making fun of what people say and believe about causes, even if at first you just want to roll your eyes. For one thing, people might stop telling you what is really on their minds if you make fun of what they say. And if you think about it, you will find that educated, scientific Westerners are not very different. The not uncommon view that “everything happens for a reason”, for example, cannot be justified by pure science. It is fundamentally a statement of mystic causality. Yet one sees and hears it all the time from educated Americans.

In Jesus’ day, many thought that sin caused all disasters and disabilities. See Luke 13:1-5 to see how Jesus dealt with that.

I find that I have learned from African viewpoints on causality. Besides, I still remember the  shocked look on the African pharmacist’s face when I told him I needed a treatment for Apollo. A white guy is not supposed to know that kind of local legend.