It’s ironic that as I crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge to attend an urban apologetics conference in Philadelphia I encountered the very religious pluralism that makes conferences such as these a necessity. As my weathered SUV pulled up to the stoplight, I could see the Marcus Garvey–inspired Pan-African flag and a group of young men and women standing on the median yelling, “Black Power, Black Power,” while others bellowed, “the black man is God!” at passing pedestrians and vehicles.
At the next intersection, a member of the Nation of Islam sells bean pies and hands out literature, an entrepreneurial practice that has existed since the early 1930s.
After parking and inserting some quarters into the meter, I bought two scented oils for $10 from an old Muslim man at a merchandise table before heading into the conference.
Traditional African Religions Have an Appeal
As an inner-city dweller, occurrences like these transpire on a consistent basis because our cities are hubs of religious diversity, expression, and practice. While some urban religions such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America were birthed in the early part of the 20th century, other religious preferences such as ancient African faith have existed for centuries and are often more appealing to people of color than traditional Judeo-Christianity because they are faiths practiced by the ancestors of the African Diaspora. While the ancestral connection is undeniable, abandoning Christ for traditional African religions is unnecessary. As our ancestors understood, West African cosmology comports well with Christianity because the gospel clarifies rather than contradicts pre-existing African theological and social structures.
Furthermore, for many of the slaves who practiced traditional African religions prior to arriving on Southern plantations, Christianity elucidated their theology because it was fastened to a set theological convictions and practices that already fit their existing presuppositions. This contributed to the boom of Christianity among slave populations. God used stories such as Moses and the Exodus and Christ and the resurrection to strengthen the resolves of slaves in the face of trials and displayed his preeminence over their indigenous African deities. Therefore, leaving Christianity for a traditional African religion exhibits a lack of understanding of the richness of Christian theology and our enslaved ancestors’ connection to the faith.
Why Are People Leaving Christianity for Ancient
In a recent article published on Vice, a young lady wrote about her journey from Christianity to an ancient African faith after the passing of her father. The article, which read like a journal entry, recounted how she found solace in the religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa. They were the largest ethnic group trafficked in the Mid-Atlantic Trade, in what we would call Togo, Benin Republic, and Southwestern Nigeria, today. Their religion, which is generally referred to as “Yoruba religion” or “African traditional religion” had more appeal to this young woman because it lifted her out of grief in a way that she felt Christianity could not.
Her piece impaled my soul because, as a pastor in one of America’s notorious inner cities, her experience reminded me of so many of those who I’ve met and engaged with about faith; and, sadly, this trendy turn to African traditional religion is especially prevalent among millennials who have become frustrated with the church’s apparent duplicity in communal engagement.
The shift displays a lack of understanding of Christian theology and history, and more closely mirrors internet propaganda than reliable scholarship. But from my experience, understanding the increasing prevalence of African traditional religions in the mainstream in recent years is a valuable tool to have in our apologetic toolbox.
Adherents of African traditional religion rail that they “want to worship the god(s) of their ancestors,” because they believe Christianity does not appeal to their religious sensibilities, engage their oppressive predicament, or affirm their ethnic culture. In the face of these claims, it is imperative to diversify our apologetic arsenal to provide clarity about why we choose to cling to Christ rather than abandon him.
The Allure of Lemonade
While inquiry about West African spirituality has been discussed for centuries, it moved into the mainstream in early 2016 when acclaimed artist Beyoncé released her Grammy-winning album, Lemonade. Accompanied by short films that illustrate musical concepts and high production values, she drew upon the imagery of one of the most revered orishas (deities) in the Yoruba pantheon, Oshun. In her video “Hold Up,” she dawned the fluorescent yellow dress of the goddess of love and fertility who’s often depicted as wearing the same garb.
She gained even more notoriety for her use of West African spirituality again during her Grammy performance. In what some consider an ode to Black America, Beyoncé, dressed as the beloved deity, captivated the stage with her vocals and paid homage to West African tradition that has also spread into parts of the Caribbean and South America.
Her performance not only catapulted West African spirituality into the mainstream spotlight, but her album and subsequent performances highlighted the diversity, complexity, and layers of faith of traditional Yoruba religion. Conversely, it also aided in clarifying misconceptions many individuals, especially those in theologically conservative evangelical circles, often have about the intricate matrix of religious thought in Africa.
Africa Is More Than Huts and Lions
The word “Africa,” often conjures images of lands untouched by modernization, a vast continent of raw material and resources. Though the land is valued—as a source for raw materials—the mind of the African often is not. The intellectual prowess and the complexity of faith of African people groups in general, and West Africans in particular, are often overlooked.
Our perceptions of the continent are reinforced by Hollywood’s depiction of people living in huts and wearing loincloths while dying from malnourishment and autoimmune diseases. Similarly, the faith of people on the continent is often reduced to fetishism (i.e., the worship of an object with mystical powers) which is actually practiced around the world.
Because we are impaired by our cultural biases, when Christianity is represented as a product of the West, as opposed to the Middle East, some urban dwellers view the faith as unpalatable. They see Christianity as an Anglo-dominated religion that is irrelevant when dealing with the issues of black and brown people, while African traditional religions seem to better match their cultural sensibilities.
They often fail to realize that Christianity has existed in Africa so long that it can be considered an indigenous religion, especially in North Africa. While it is harder to trace its development and expansion into West Africa, many scholars believe that Portuguese explorers were the first to bear the name of Christ to West Africa in 1458, before the first African slaves were brought to American shores. For pastors like myself who serve in the inner-city context, this has become an urgent issue of apologetics because it is imperative to discover the link between the truth about African spirituality and faith in Christ in order to defend the faith knowledgeably and truthfully.
Next week: The Debate Within the African American Community
Ernest Cleo Grant II (@iamernestgrant) is a pastor in Camden, New Jersey, a doctoral student, community advocate. He blogs at iamernestgrant.com.