On a regular basis, Rev. Thokozani “Thoko” Chilembwe bikes 43 km to get to one of the prayer houses that he pastors. 43 km on a bike that is decades old and needs repair. 43 km on a “road” that is really just a traditional dirt path that 4×4 trucks have created. 43 km in 35 Celsius wind that kicks up dust thick enough to clog most air filters. Once he gets there he stays wherever he can find a place, likely with a family who will attend the prayer meeting the next day. In all probability, the family will give up their best (maybe only) bed for him and cook their best (maybe only) food for him.
On Sunday, Rev. Thoko will conduct a service of worship. A small group of believers will gather at a brick prayer house. He will pray and preach. They will sing and dance. Then he will go and visit families, encouraging them, and consoling them. The prayer house is in the middle of a heavily Muslim area so there are daily consequences to living there as a Christian. This little group of believers will also make plans on how to reach out to their Muslim neighbours with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
After all of this, Rev. Thoko will stay another night. Then, on Monday, he will bike back to his home on the same 43 km dirt path. He will return to his wife and family having exerted a great deal of energy simply to conduct a service of worship, visit some families, and to encourage evangelism among those who don’t know Jesus.
When I tell people about ministers, abusas in Chichewa, like Thoko they immediately want to help by giving some material resources. That is great. Thoko has started a fundraising campaign for a reliable motor dirt bike to make his life a lot easier. Purchase and maintenance take resources. Some people will even go a little deeper and think about how to support the economic development of the people that Thoko stays with. An immediate response by some is to think of a development program that can help. This also takes material resources and a great deal of time. All of this is great and the PCC is doing a lot of this through Presbyterian World Service & Development.
Missed in this is the essential work that Thoko is already doing. Besides the fact that he is being faithful to the Gospel call, he is playing an essential but often unacknowledged role in that community.
Malawi is undergoing a monumental societal change. Old social systems, both traditional African society and British colonialism, have run up against the forces of globalization and like every other place, this conflict creates uncertainty, fear, and social dislocation. People struggle to understand the world around them and in this confusion, they fear that they will get trampled or forgotten. Older ways of understanding the world, like when the rains will come and how people should interact with each other, are coming up against forces beyond their control, such as climate change and social media. When ways of making sense of the world are all in flux, the places in which people found comfort before are hard to find.
A factor in this dislocation sometimes missed by those in the West is that until recently, there was a kind of “sacred canopy” covering Malawian society. This is a culture where, until very recently, the spirit world and the physical world interacted in tangible and real ways. An illness could plausibly be treated by modern medicine or by the charms of a traditional herbalist. This is because the illness could be caused either by bacteria or by a curse. The spiritual and material function side by side in a unified whole.
Increasingly though, the relationship between these two worlds–the spiritual and the material –is getting strained. When the sacred canopy is coming apart, when the forces of globalization (which surely include climate change–something that the people here keenly feel, for they know that Malawi is getting dustier and windier each year) are destroying the foundations of a somewhat tenuous social system, then aid and development are not sufficient. In the rural areas where the effects of these changes are felt but few of the benefits seem to accrue, they need a people gathered around the promises of a gracious God to make it each day. In urban settings, the church is the frontline of trying to make sense of the onslaught of global media and changing generational expectations. The dislocation that the people feel must be countered by something stable, like the Gospel, and that Gospel will only make itself known through the church.
I’ve been working my way through Charles Taylor’s opus A Secular Age. The language of “sacred canopy” I used above is Peter Berger’s and Taylor uses some of that. I think that Taylor goes deeper. He traces how secularity even became an option that people could imagine. In the words of a scholar friend of mine, Malawian society is a “dizzying confluence of almost simultaneous modernity and postmodernity (of some sort) and postsecularism” with a dose of charismatic prosperity gospel combined with African traditional religions. Taylor is helping me in trying to parse out and understand how Malawian society is dealing with this monumental change. I haven’t finished my thinking yet but this I know: people like Thoko are doing essential work and deserve our full support.
7 thoughts on “Spinning the Sacred Canopy”
Thanks for this post, Blair, and I’m curious what more you take out of Taylor. I have not tackled the original opus yet, but have worked by way carefully through Jamie Smith’s commentary on it. As an historian of Christianity, I’m particularly taken with his account of the ‘construction’ of secularity and of idea of all of us living in ‘contested space.’ As you know from your time here, that’s particularly true of the west coast. I’d love to hear more about the Gospel that Thoko is preaching. What’s your take on its shape and trajectory? I’ve just finished taking a course from Harry Maier on ‘Decolonizing Jesus’ that opened up for me the whole literature on seeing the early Jesus/Christian movements as alternative communities within the Roman imperial ‘imaginary,’ especially the work of Richard A Horsely.
As usual, you pack a lot into a small space!
I’m on page 335 of 776. The most salient sections so far are about enchantment/disenchantment because I am working towards writing a piece about theological education in Malawi and North America. I’ve read Smith and have read sections of Taylor before but I’m not working all the way through it. One thing I have noticed is that he is so expansive it is hard to get a grip on particular criticisms of him. That will come later after surveying the whole. If you are interested, my friend Andy Root has made extensive use of Taylor in two books – Faith Formation in a Secular Age and he new one on science and faith in youth ministry. You should really read those to go along with your reading of Smith. One reviewer commented that Andy is the practical theological equivalent of Jamie Smith.
As for Thoko, he is an example of the best that Malawi has to offer. I’m sure I could get you a copy of some of his sermons. Suffice to say at the moment that he translated, with Rev. Dr. Todd Statham who was a PCC minister teaching at Zomba Theological College at the time, some original writings of the first Malawian ordained in the CCAP. The PCC paid for its publication and you could likely contact Rev. Glynis Williams to get a copy. He also wrote an article about it that got published by a German journal. He is fully aware of the complicated history of colonialism, and it is complicated here on the ground.
Very helpful comments and info. I’ll go hunting for those writings and look forward to your further reflections on Taylor. Blessings and peace, Brian.
Brian, you might look at an older piece by Alan Jacobs that is doing the kind of engagement with Taylor’s work that I am working up to. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/fantasy-and-the-buffered-self
Thanks again for this ongoing dialogue. I’m finding it most provocative. I’ve ordered Root’s book on the secular age, so will start on him there. I’ve glanced quickly at the Jacobs article and will read it more carefully over the weekend, but I think you’re both onto something. I’m reading Jamie Smith’s books on worship in preparation for applying for a Vital Worship Grant from Calvin College to look deeper into how Jesus encounters people through jazz in worship, so these conversations about contested social imaginaries is crucial to my understanding of how we form Christian disciples through congregations. A new sense of the flow of worship has emerged from our conversations about the grant, viz. from welcome, to wonder, to wisdom, to witness. One of the questions we want to probe is whether there is an instinctive wisdom in the workings and wisdom of the jazz tradition that might inform this. Or, to put it another way, is there an ‘invisible church’ happening in jazz that might be worth exploring in a deeper dialogue? But we also want to make sure that our take on our intent is heard in that dialogue. So, much gratitude for taking the time and thought to engage in this conversation. It enriches things greatly.
Also, I think that Brad Childs may have forwarded to you my notes on Presbyterian polity in response to that part of last year’s Church Doctrine report. I had sent them to Stephen Kendal, but don’t know what happened to them. I know this is not an immediately pressing issue for CD, but would love to be part of that ongoing conversation. As you might have noticed from the minutes of the Presbytery of Westminster, David Jennings and I are continuing on with our fundamental disagreement on how our polity should work.
Blessings and peace to all,
I did see that there was a lamentable situation from your perspective. Brad sent the report and I have forwarded it to the person on the Committee on Church Doctrine who is looking after this document (Rev. Paul Johnson). I’m sure you will hear more.
Thanks, Blair. I probably didn’t make it clear to Stephen what I hoped would happen to it, but glad it has gotten into the mix. That really doesn’t come anywhere near lamentable for me these days.