In a lovely Christmas book for children, Madeleine L’Engle called the Incarnation “the glorious impossible”—an unthinkable idea that nevertheless shines with possibility and hope. It’s a good description of the gospel as a whole. And it is precisely the impossibility of the gospel that makes it so culturally potent and so perennially relevant. The gospel constantly challenges every human culture with the possibility that we live within misplaced horizons.
—Culture Making, p.176
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.
But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
Majestic in a green chasuble, Father Ibemere delivered his homily strolling up and down the aisle. When it was time to distribute the eucharist, he bent down to give communion to a man he knew was too ill to stand.
After the Mass, however, one member of the congregation, Virginia Ballard, gestured toward the Nigerian priest and confided in Father Venters, “I can’t understand what he said, but he’s a sweet young man.”
Mrs. Ballard went on to praise Father Ibemere’s knowledge of the Bible, his capacity to remember the names of congregants, his willingness to teach the Americans about his home in Nigeria. “He is a holy man,” she concluded, “and we are honored to have him.”
[S]ometimes Mark’s Gospel has been called the first Christian book, in large part based on the reference in Mk. 13.14 where we find the parenthetical remark, “let the reader understand”, on the assumption that the ‘reader’ in question is the audience. But let us examine this assumption for a moment. Both in Mk. 13.14 and in Rev. 1.3 the operative Greek word is ho anagin?sk?n, a clear reference to a single and singular reader, who in that latter text is distinguished from the audience who are dubbed the hearers (plural!) of John’s rhetoric. . . . [N]ot even Mark’s Gospel should be viewed as a text, meant for private reading, much less the first real modern ‘text’ or ‘book’. Rather Mark is reminding the lector, who will be orally delivering the Gospel in some or several venues near to the time when this ‘abomination’ would be or was already arising that they needed to help the audience understand the nature of what was happening when the temple in Jerusalem was being destroyed. Oral texts often include such reminders for the ones delivering the discourse in question. So in fact it is not likely the case that the reference to ‘a reader’ in the NT functions like it would in a modern text. The reader in question is not the audience of the discourse or document, but rather its presenter who knows the text in advance and can appropriately and effectively orally deliver its content to the intended audience or audiences.