Saturday, October 29, 2005

Jeffrey Tayler’s, Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel (Houghton Mifflin, $25, 250 pages) is a religious travel epic by a man who spends three months cutting a 4,000-mile swath through the Sahel, the southern part of the Sahara inhabited not by Arabs, but by Islamicized blacks. Most times of the year, the region is a living hell due to the grinding poverty and the “harmattan,” a parching east wind that covers the sky and all living things with red-brown dust. It is the world’s most desperate places.

And it is desperation that reigns in countries such as Chad, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria and eastern Senegal where westerners, especially women, hardly dare tread. Mr. Tayler, with his knowledge of French and Arabic, also finds Sahel tourism a tough go. His use of apt detail and color in describing this region gives us a true feel for his adventures in exotic locales.

Where the author stumbles is on religion. Even though Muslims conquered the region by force centuries ago, the Arabs, he notes, always “introduce” their religion. But Christians are always shown as imposing or manipulating their faith and there isn’t a decent Christian in the entire narrative. Although Muslims have long talked up the glorious roots of the Islamic empire in west Africa, which embraces 10 million people, Mr. Tayler’s visits to legendary spots such as Sokoto in Nigeria and Timbuktu in Mali reveals them as little more than towns of mud huts and miserable mosques.

The Muslims he meets believe September 11 to be a western plot. The author treks about northern Nigeria, a world center for Islamic sharia law, but surprisingly does not criticize sharia mandates such as automatic imprisonment and often death for women caught in adultery. He swallows the Islamic assumption that the religion has the right to conquer a land’s inhabitants when they refuse to accept the conqueror’s faith. Why forced conversions were acceptable for the seventh-century Arabs but not acceptable for the 12th-century Crusaders goes unexplained.

The best part in Jack Hayford’s primer on worship, Manifest Presence: Experience a Visitation of God’s Grace Through Worship (Chosen, $19.99, 274 pages) is the second chapter where the author, longtime pastor of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., unveils a look at heaven. The Pentecostal pastor does a fabulous job of describing a heavenly emerald throne surrounded by millions of angels. As for God Himself, the best earthly vocabulary can do is compare Him to precious stones: flashing white diamonds and deep red carnelians.

The author’s theme is that worship is the key to evangelizing the world and somehow, the Christian world must learn how to make this happen. One idea: clapping one’s hands and singing praise songs to change one’s circumstances for the better. This is not a new concept in evangelicalism but Mr. Hayford devotes a lot of ink to it. Surprisingly, he spends little space on how to shepherd the supernatural gifts of the Spirit during worship times even though several chapters in the New Testament are devoted to this very topic. He spends more time on mundane ingredients of a service, such as the way in which people are greeted upon entering church.

Mr. Hayford has experienced all the Pentecostal fads through the decades and his assertion that spoken praise in church tends to last only a predictable 17 seconds is quite true. He makes one comic observation that rings true for any Sunday worshipper: “There are hellish emissaries,” he writes, “whose single assignment is to extend hell’s confusion and pandemonium in Christian homes on Sunday morning.” Obviously this man had kids.

A lot of thought went into this quality book, Too Small To Ignore: Why Children Are The Next Big Thing by Wess Stafford and Dean Merrill (Waterbrook, $16.99, 266 pages). The president of Compassion International, a Christian child development agency in Colorado Springs, Mr. Stafford explains why the church should pay vastly more attention to its children. Drawing from his experience as a missionary’s kid growing up in the 1950s in an Ivory Coast village, he offers a compelling account of why the world’s children need to be fed, clothed, nurtured and evangelized better than they are.

Mr. Stafford’s book asks for a change in American Christian mentality on poverty, explaining that Americans cannot understand the fatalism the affects the truly poor. The sadness and hopelessness about ever escaping their situation affects children as young as 3 or 4 years old. This mindset is carved into the minds of millions as they grow up. The poor, if nothing else, are overwhelmed with adversity and the lack of food, money, shelter, education, job skills and justice leads to a downward spiral of defeat.

The author writes extensively of a horrendous child abuse scandal at a private Christian school in Africa that forever turned off a generation of missionary kids to Christianity. While that tale plays into the general theme of the book on the importance of keeping children safe from sexual abuse, it displays a candor rare in evangelical literature. Years later, when Mr. Stafford returns to his Ivory Coast village, he meets a childhood friend who had planned to be a pastor. After the boy’s family suffered several reverses, it became financially impossible for the young man to get an education. When Mr. Stafford meets his friend decades later, his childhood friend is a broken man, relegated to cutting grass with a machete for a living. It’s for this reason the book is written, to explain in human terms what poverty does to an entire continent.

Fewer born-again Americans are attending church, according to just about anyone involved in church growth these days. What’s surprising are the amount of churched people who have given up on the institution, even though they nurture their personal relationships with Christ, George Barna writes in Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond The Walls of The Sanctuary (Tyndale House, $17.99, 140 pages). Rather than condemn their disenchantment, the author glamorizes this Christian subgroup as “revolutionaries,” people who are living like Christ even though they’re absent from the sanctuary.

Mr. Barna indulges in overkill comparing this trend to the Reformation but he’s hit upon some nuggets of truth in describing this “under-the-radar but seminal renaissance of faith.” There is a cohort of Christians who are searching for something much better than the institutional church but are they really the “revolutionaries” he lauds in this book? Not at this point. The under-40 set in which he places such great hopes regarding a coming transformation of American Christianity are nowhere near capable of doing so. The mini-movements he looks to cannot carry the weight of a transformation of evangelicalism.

Mr. Barna has latched onto some real problems with contemporary American Christianity. It’s true people are leaving the organized church. As for these “revolutionaries” who are going to change it all: Who is going to train these people?

Julia Duin covers religion for The Washington Times.

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