Reviewed by Comfort Musongole
Pastor Robert Beaton (PhD) is a missionary, preacher, and theological trainer. In this book, he carries out an ethnographical study to identify the worldviews that animate the use of traditional religious charms. The study was done through the collection of charm-related stories by means of semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions and interviews with mainly Zambezi Evangelical Church pastors and theology students. Charm-dependency has been identified as a barrier to discipleship and spiritual development in the Zambezi Evangelical Church in South-Central Malawi. The belief in traditional religious charms is rooted in African Traditional Religion.
Beaton does a good job in elaborating on traditional African worldviews. He endeavours to make the reader understand why members of Zambezi Evangelical Church still practise African Tradition Religion despite converting to Christianity. It must be noted that the African worldview is anthropocentric, unlike the Western worldview which is theocentric. In Christianity, people relate to God through Jesus the Christ. However, in the African worldview, people relate to God through a hierarchy of mediums.
What one finds in African Christianity is an amalgamation of Christian beliefs with traditional African religious practices, a combination that has been dubbed ‘syncretism’ by many a scholar of African Christianity. To theologians like Beaton, the amalgamation of Christianity and African Traditional Religion appears to dilute the purity of Christianity because Christianity must be Christocentric. Therefore, the author argues for a transforming worldview that must challenge and subvert people’s deep-level worldview assumptions and replace them with more biblical notions. Beaton’s proposed approach is contrary to the common understanding in anthropology, that all religions are necessarily syncretistic, dynamic and continually evolving as they come in contact with other cultures.
Beaton asserts that to have a transformative worldview, there must be an understanding of the receptor culture’s worldview. In the book, this is done in several ways. Firstly, a contextual focus: to understand the local culture and the worldview behind their religious practices in order to have a constructive and culturally sensitive dialogue with the Bible. Secondly, a biblical focus: to consider how Scripture might address unhelpful traditional religious (cultural) thinking and practice in order to challenge and subvert spurious assumptions with a biblical worldview. Thirdly, a pedagogic consideration in the context. This is because Malawians tend to think in patterns that are circular, interconnected, holistic, experiential and communal rather than processing information in linear, specific, analytical, theoretical and individualistic-competitive ways as Westerners do. As a result, oral methods of communicating the Christian truth must draw on traditional models such as storytelling, proverbs, and discussion, with ample room for personal testimonies and questions. The most fruitful approaches appear to be group orientated, participatory, and dialogical.
Due to its holistic approach, the book sets a good background for appreciating the different worldviews. One of the shortfalls of the book, however, is that the research is that it lacks objectivity, for the author approaches the subject matter from a particular standpoint. From the start to the end, the book portrays the African worldview as and thus in need of transformation. In addition, there is bias in the choice of the respondents, for the author draws information from fellow pastors of Zambezi Evangelical Church and theology students. The study would have yielded richer, if variegated, results had the author included the laity and even people outside the particular ecclesial community.