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Kwame Kwei Armah, narrator/author of 'Dark Continents'

I was called to watch another one of these shows on Christianity on the ABC the other day. I find them inevitably quite depressing because they rarely ever touch on what are for me the key issues. In this particular piece ‘Dark Continents’, Kwame Kwei Armah, the narrator and presumably the author, English-born but tracing his ancestry back through the Caribbean to Ghana, relates some of the first terrible encounters between white European Christians and the natives of Africa and South and Central America. His general thesis is simple enough, not to say simplistic. Attempts to Christianize the natives by brute force didn’t work, and resulted in the slaughter of millions. ‘Encouraging’ the religion to percolate through native society resulted in a blend of local magic and varieties of worship with the teachings of Christianity, which gave a more authentic feel to the resultant brew. It’s very much like MacDonalds adapting their hamburgers and fast foods to particular regional and cultural tastes, to further expand and develop. And conquer. Add to this thesis the idea that the west has lost its spiritual way since the enlightenment, while black Africa, so much more spiritually rich than dull, lost westerners, is rekindling the true spirit of Christianity, its joy, its fervour, its pageantry and its rhythmic grooviness.

In this doco we don’t get interviews with intellectuals, apart from historians confirming the rape of the new world by the old world Christians, and some black priests. We don’t get different sides of a story. We certainly don’t get any questioning of religion, or exploration of its psychology. Perhaps it’s aimed only at believers, I’m not sure. It certainly has a note of triumphalism. The narrator says at the outset that he’s going to tell the story of how, ‘in the greatest revolution in religious history, the new converts have seized the religion of their former colonial masters, transformed it, and are now set to overturn the European world.’

Sounds like throat-slitting time. But my bet is, it ain’t gonna happen. The worldview built up in Europe and in many other parts of the world as a result of the Enlightenment is, I’m hoping, too solid, too richly tapestried and interwoven, to be seriously threatened by a return to magic, witchcraft and enslavement to supernatural overlords. The modern west may seem from its phlegmatism and apparent quietude to be a soft target for African religious enthusiasts, but the body of knowledge that we’ve built and continue to build, on human psychology and consciousness, on the evolution, not only of our species, but of all the other species on this planet, and of our planet itself and of the universe that contains it, and our growing understanding of our near-infinite ability to delude ourselves and aggrandize ourselves, through religion and through other processes of the endlessly devious human mind, these developments I’m hoping will stand us in good stead against any upsurge of ‘spirituality’ in our midst. Our gains from the Enlightenment have been incalculable, and surely enduring. To throw them all away for a recycled religion would be the sickest of jokes.

What to make of this documentary? It didn’t irritate me in the way that Howard Jacobson’s shallow claim to moderation did in the last doco I reviewed. Much of it deals with history – the history of the Mayans’ treatment at the hands of the Spanish, for example, together with the burning of their manuscripts, an incalculable loss. Apart from some nuances of interpretation, this historical treatment struck me as unobjectionable, and of course familiar, considering my recent reading. When the narrator promised to explain the incredible success of Christianity in these colonised regions, after the slaughtering and destruction had stopped, I was all ears. The answer, though, was a familiar one. Christianity is so vague, and its god, once stripped of his violent and partisan historicity by the theologians, is so bland, that it can take on the flavours of local regions and absorb them – a bit like rice or potatoes. The virgin Mary can become an earth-goddess or eternal mother, and can take on the brown hues of Mexican natives, or the darker tones of Africans. The cult of the virgin is immensely popular in Mexico and it seems to be tied to a belief that the virgin, the one who supposedly lived out her life in Palestine, ‘appeared’ in Mexico, in indigenous form, accompanied no doubt by the usual bells and whistles. This preposterous assertion is not of course questioned by the narrator, who sees it only in positive terms. To quote him:

The brown virgin of Guadalupe is now the national saint of Mexico, and there are hundreds of other local cults dedicated to the virgin Mary all over Latin America and the developed world. This intense emotional attachment to the virgin Mary has been one of Christianity’s secret weapons in its extraordinary growth around the world.

What he’s talking about here is a secret sales weapon. The idea of what is actually true doesn’t seem to have occurred to the man. Nor does he consider the question of proper nutrition  Again I’m reminded of MacDonalds. The above quote could be tweaked a bit to read like this:

The hot sauce of Guadalupe[RTD] is now the national sauce of Mexico, and there are hundreds of other local outlets dedicated to special sauces all over Latin America and the developed world. This intense gustatory attachment to its special sauces has been one of MacDonalds’ secret weapons in its extraordinary growth around the world.

It all seems to be about bums on seats according to this narrator. He interviews another Latino who points out that churches all through Central and South America are packed, whereas they are of course emptying in Europe. One might also point out that Europeans and other westerners are giving up smoking in droves, whereas Asians and Latinos, generally less educated about the dangers, and subjected to intensive and unregulated advertising, are packing the cancerous smoke into their lungs at ever-increasing rates.

To my biased view, the most authentic and best parts of the documentary chart the tragic history of oppression and exploitation of indigenous peoples by white colonisers professing the Christian religion. It is genuinely moving and scarifying to be with the narrator in one of the underground holds in Africa, from which prisoners were shipped to foreign parts to be stripped of their identities, brutalized and enslaved. But when describing the hapless situation of the first black African priest and missionary, he makes what I think is the most revelatory statement in the documentary, central to his whole thesis:

Today, it’s easy to see how doomed from the start [his] mission was. The Christianity he’d been taught was western European, the religion of eighteenth century England, shorn by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, of its popular spirituality, its vitality , its raw energy. This kind of religion bore no relation to the world of black Africa.

It’s an almost feather-light reference to the Enlightenment, but it’s highly – enlightening. The Enlightenment, with its spirit of scepticism and inquiry, was indeed inimical to the world of spirits, djinns, magical potions and witchery which had hitherto done so much damage and caused such hindrance in the world. Vitality needed to be trained and channeled by discipline, and energy wasn’t necessarily a virtue in itself. With the Enlightenment came a revolution of methodologies, a revolution which has transformed the world far more than Christianity or any religion could ever do. Yet our narrator’s only passing reference to it is entirely negative, and raw energy and vitality are seen as more estimable.

The documentary takes us from Mexico to Ghana to Ethiopia and beyond, and we’re treated to intriguing history, amazing monuments and fantastic manuscripts, and we see lots of colourful processions and enthusiastic celebrants. It’s all charming and happy happy, with no hint of theological disputation, no sign of outgroup bullying or the victims of shamanic accusors, about which Leo Igwe and other critics of African religiosity so ‘obsess’ about. Yet I find this anti-inquiring presentation of African religion thoroughly disconcerting.

Years ago, an acquaintance who’d recently returned from a holiday on that island so beloved of Australian tourists, Bali, was keen to sing the praises of the Balinese, their contentment, their cheerfulness, the simplicity of their lives, the frank straightforwardness of their religion – Hinduism in this case. He said he would happily give his current life away to join them and be a part of their culture. Being as he was rather an indolent, restless sort, this didn’t surprise me too much, but I myself wouldn’t give up anything of the knowledge I’ve gained – the enlightenment if you like – through the tough grind of reflection and the hard work of acquisition – for all the apparent benefits and comforts of religious belief. And in any case it’s too late, having eaten of the tree of knowledge, however it might taste to you,  you can’t ever return to that state of innocence. You have to make the most of your exile, and the experience it brings.

Written by stewart henderson

January 17, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Posted in religion, skepticism

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