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Primal Religions and Christianity
June 20, 2007

A pair of lectures by world-renowned scholars next month at Calvin College will address what Calvin's Joel Carpenter calls a sleeper topic in the study of the history of Christianity.

BediakoFirst Kwame Bediako (right) of the Akrofi-Chistaller Institute for Theology, Mission and Culture in Akropong, Ghana will speak on Thursday, July 19 at 7:30 pm in the Meeter Center Lecture Hall and then on Wednesday, July 25, also at 7:30 pm in the Meeter Center Lecture Hall, Gillian M. Bediako will speak.

Both talks will be on the importance of primal religions as the substructure of Christianity.

Both talks will be on the importance of primal religions as the substructure of Christianity.

Or, as Carpenter says: "Primal worldviews have been dismissed as primitive or as mere superstition in the West. Yet the primal outlook has been shown to have affinity with the biblical worldview and this is a major reason for the massive accession to Christian faith among peoples of a primal faiths."

The Bediakos will be at Calvin most of July as they head up a month-long gathering of scholars and theologians studying primal religions. The seminar is sponsored by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin, which Carpenter serves as director.

The 15 participants represent a wide range of theological traditions and countries. They will convene at Calvin from Ghana, the Philippines, Nigeria, Taiwan, Peru, South Africa, India, Bolivia, Scotland and the U.S. And for a month they will discuss and debate the Christian history of peoples whose cultures have been shaped by primal religions and the issues currently arising in church life among these peoples.

Carpenter says the new research on primal religions and Christianity has the capacity to turn classic 19th century missionary theory on its head.

"The old idea," he says, "was to go to the nation's leaders and convert them first. It's how much of northern Europe was converted. But it was always rough going in Asia, where people who held to the region's 'high religions' largely decided against Christian conversion.

" Where did the people enthusiastically receive the Christian gospel? At the ethnic margins of the 'great' civilizations. Today's missionaries need to have that idea as part of their toolkit. It means instead of saying these primal beliefs are all superstition or all demonic they need to recognize the religious faith and worldview there and pick up on what it has in common with the biblical story."

It's an important shift says Carpenter for a world in which the growth of Christianity is not in the west.

"During all periods of Christian history," he says, "the majority of those peoples who have embraced the Christian faith were previously adherents of religious traditions that are now called primal. We see this in Africa certainly, but also in China, Korea, India, Latin America. Christianity has experienced a seismic shift in its place among the people and religions of the world and this historic shift in the geographic and cultural location of Christianity has enormous implications."

Carpenter notes that only 40% of the world's Christians now live in the North Atlantic quadrant, and the faith is declining numerically in that region. About 60% of the world's Christians reside elsewhere, in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific.

He believes that the quality of 21st century Christianity as a whole will depend on the quality of its interaction with the cultures of Africa, Asia and Latin America, noting too that primal worldviews are not dying out but indeed persist among Christians even while they participate in the activities of modernity.

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