Glimmer is right. Mr. Burke, who served as a math teacher in a rural Zambian school for boys from 2004 to 2006, under the auspices of the VSO (a British something like the American Peace Corps?), left Zambia disillusioned and rather disgusted with the “wastefulness and inefficiencies” that were “trapping Zambia in self-fulfilling, perpetual stagnation.”
“I had been sceptical of religion beforehand and my experiences in Africa had cemented my poor opinion of Christianity in particular. Christianity was paraded endlessly in Zambia, but I often reflected that I never really met anyone there who I would consider genuinely Christian, most especially those in the employ of the church.”
“In the context of Zambia I came to see Christianity not just as harmless nonsense but as positively dangerous. It encouraged irrational thinking and opposed the development of Reason. I had always had this view of religion, but now saw it brutally in action in a poverty-stricken country.”
He attributes almost all aspects of Zambian behavior and culture that he does not like and finds backward and unreasonable to “a lack of critical faculties encouraged by the sheepish following of religion.” It’s the Enlightenment versus the Age of Faith, Frederick the Great versus Bach, debate all over again.
I could not escape the impression that Mr. Burke came to Zambia hostile to Christianity, and he found in Zambian culture reasons to support his hostility. I’m sure that were I to go to Zambia I would find problems within the Zambian church and in the practice of Christianity in that country, but since I am a committed Christian I would see issues and aberrations that needed to be fixed rather than an entire belief system that needed to be jettisoned in favor of a devotion to Reason and Western common sense.
If Christianity is a foundational part of Zambian culture at this point in history, wouldn’t it make sense for even secular aid workers and others who want to help Zambians pull themselves out of poverty and stagnation and ignorance to work with the prevailing culture and help them to live up to the tenets of their faith rather than criticize the people for their Christian “obsession” in the first place? Should outsiders really damn the Christian message itself for not living up to whatever secular heights of Reason the author wants the Zambian people to scale? If your preconceived attitude is that Christianity is equivalent to superstition, then you will find evidence to support that notion wherever you go. Because of my underlying, entirely reasonable, preconceptions, I find Reason itself to be an inadequate god, and I believe that persons in the helping professions need a foundation that is stronger than secularism to provide strength and purpose over the long haul.
I thought this book was informative in regard to the problems in Zambia, but short on answers and quite lacking in a genuine empathy for the Zambian people. Unfortunately, Mr. Burke comes away from his “missions” experience discouraged and dominated by compassion fatigue. He does mention some of those “glimmers of hope”, one or two aid programs that he thinks might be somewhat effective, but the main themes of the memoir consist of disillusionment and disappointment.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote a fiction book after completing her work with the Quechua people in Ecuador in which she meditates on the inability of missionaries to effect change in a culture and on the unfathomable ways of God. The book is called No Graven Image, and it should be required reading for missionaries and other Christian aid workers. In the story, Margaret Sparhawk goes to South America to work with the Quichua (just as Elliot did). While there her most basic assumptions about God and about the effectiveness of missions work are challenged. The difference between Ms. Sparhawk’s fictional experience and Mr. Burke’s real-life experience is that even though the fictional missionary finds out that God does not always “bless” the work, it is the calling and the service lived out before Him that matter.
Again, Mr. Burke has some valid questions about Christianity as it is lived out in the context of Zambian culture and to tell the truth, as it is lived out many times in the U.S. and in other places. It is true that atheists are sometimes more compassionate and more honest than those who claim to follow Jesus. But I could wish that Mr. Burke would have looked a little more carefully in Zambia and elsewhere in his life experience to acknowledge that not all Christians are hypocrites and not all of the consequences of a Christian worldview are negative.