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"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

B J van der Walt - When Western and African Cultures Meet - a review

Here is my review from Philosophia Reformata 73 (2008): 212-213.

B. J. van der Walt, When African and Western Cultures Meet: From Confrontation to Appreciation. Potchefstroom: ICCA, 2006. 317 pages.
ISBN 1 86822 510.

The South African Bennie van der Walt has been a Christian scholar for over 40 years. For 40 years and more he has been producing papers and books that are replete with wisdom, understanding and insight. This book is no exception. In recent decades he has turned the focus of his studies to Africa. This book is the product of some of these studies.
This volume comprises a collection of essays that have largely been published elsewhere – chapters 3-7 originally in his native Afrikaans in the journals In die Skriflig and Koers. The book, is however, no less coherent for that. He starts by looking at the meaning of three important concepts: cultural diversity (ch 1), development (ch 3) and globalisation (ch 4).

The first chapter looks at why cultures differ, how we can evaluate their differences and what is unacceptable and acceptable in a culture. Cultural differences he sees as having their origin in the cultural mandate, different environments bring different challenges and hence different cultures. Culture is a religious response to a divine calling. No culture can become a norm and no culture is fully obedient to God’s call. He sees cultural diversity as a means of enrichment; there should be no tension between cultures, rather a mutual enrichment and appreciation (hence the subtitle of the book).

Chapter 2 puts the spotlight on Africa, one of the poorest continents. First he examines its richness before looking at Christianity on the continent and some of the socio-political-economic conditions. The condition of the church is described in five catchwords: escapistic, dualistic, pietistic, ecclesiasticism and secularism. Five words which could also describe the state of the church in the so-called developed West. The issue of poverty and wealth is then looked at. He concludes that the biblical message about poverty is clear: ‘we have to do something about it’ p. 44.

The next chapter looks at the issue of development. Here he surveys recent research that indicates that development isn’t “all it’s cracked up to be”; it isn’t the success story hoped for, the concept is not as clear as it should be and that development isn’t the only way to advance human well-being. Development is a belief that distinguishes western culture from others. It maintains that more is better! Development as it stands ‘lacks a clear normative consciousness’ (p. 63) and has become ‘a kind of secular religion’ (p. 65).

Globalisation is examined in chapter 4. Here is a brief description of globalisation, some of its characteristics, some of its consequences, an analysis of the capitalist economy that drives it and some ideas as to how it should be viewed from a Christian perspective. He utilises and develops Jonathan Chaplin’s ideas of globalisation and the essence of space, looking at retrocipations and anticipations of space. Space is the qualifying aspect of globalisation.

The issue of leadership in Africa is one that van der Walt has dealt with before in Leaders with a Vision (IRS F2 series no 59. Potchefstroom: PU for CHE, 1995), he revisits it in chapter 5. He focuses on what leadership entails. He sees leadership as ‘holding an office and having the right or authority as well as the competence or power to organise in such a way a particular community of people or a social power or a societal relationship that while obeying definite norms it can fulfil its vocation or reach its goal in a responsible way’.

The next two chapters (ch 6 and 7) compare African and Western culture and worldview. Van der Walt does it sensitively and compassionately, he is never patronising of either position. He sees cultural pluralism as an answer to the problem of cultural superiority. Diversity should be an enrichment and not a threat.

Chapter 8 looks at the important question of the role of women in Africa. Women have a low position in African society, and so the Bible brings good news for them. He looks at the biblical data and provides a convincing case for an egalitarian position of women. He examines the concepts of headship, authority and submission. He sees the meaning of head(ship) as ‘source, unity or responsibility’ (p. 262). His arguments are convincing, and ‘liberating, refreshing and healing’ for women. He offers a timely warning to husbands: ‘by keeping your wives in subservient positions, you place not only them but yourselves at a disadvantage’ (p. 277).
The final chapter (ch 9) looks at the crises in agriculture; an important issue for rural Africa, where subsistence agriculture is a way of life for many. He argues the need for a more holistic view of agriculture, a multi-dimensional view.

This book is written for the West to help us better understand Africa. It is a book that will aid mutual understanding and its insights will prove useful whatever continent we live on. It will help us appreciate other cultures and worldviews. It is a timely, accessible and important contribution to reformational thinking about culture, globalisation and development.

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