Reviewed by Anthony Mtuta
The book is about the author’s search for an adequate understanding of the practice of what the author calls charm-use among the Christians of the Zambezi Evangelical Churches (ZEC) in Malawi. Dr. Beaton obtained the information on the topic under study through a combination of secondary sources (desk research), participant observation, interviews, and discussions with pastors in ZEC.
The first volume of the book contains five chapters. Chapter One provides information on African Traditional Religious worldview and charm dependency within the Zambezi Evangelical Churches of South- Central Malawi. The author defines African Tradition Religion as traditional religious beliefs and practices of African people which continue to profoundly shape their worldview, spirituality, and lifestyle. Charm dependency, according to the author, entails using objects, acts, or words infused with supernatural powers that a person may acquire through a traditional power specialist for life enhancement and the protection of the self, family, health, business, property, pregnancy, agricultural fields and employment. This practice, the author argues, negatively impacts genuine discipleship and faith in Jesus Christ. The author also contends that the practice is grounded in a spiritualistic notion of causality. The chapter marshals empirical data on the use of charms among Zambezi Evangelical Church Christians.
The second chapter presents the use of charms as a result of fear of death and a consequence of the gravity of traditional culture, especially the tradition of Gulewamkulu and belief in malevolent spirits. The author contends that traditional religion encourages the use of various charms and mediums as strategies for dealing with misfortunes and uncertainties.
Chapter Three contains an anthology of real-life stories of charm-use from the grassroots within ZEC churches. Out of 130 stories collected, 106 stories directly confirmed charm use in ZEC churches. The author speculates that charm-dependency is partly based on an understanding of God as a distant God, one who is not interested in human personal affairs. The practice is also reportedly supported by a materialistic view of salvation.
Chapters four and five ground the practice of charm-use within the framework of Chewacosmology comprising, among other things, a transcendent God who is remote and does not keep on policing human beings but rather delegates to ancestors and spirit mediums, the task of providing for humanity. The mysticism of Gulewamkulu is based on the spiritual and physical components of the Chewa Weltanschauung which, posits the author, stimulates and perpetuates the use of charms for both self-protection and self-enhancement.
This book is an excellent reference for the subject of the role of the material world in the human-divine exchange. In many religions, material objects serve as vectors of divine presence and blessing. The book grapples with the reality that Africans have continued to adhere to their traditional belief systems in spite of their official conversion to Christianity. It also reveals how Christian doctrines and processes of evangelization have not managed to meet complex challenges people are facing in their societies. The failure of Christian missionaries to fully convert Africans is largely attributed to Christianity’s tendency to view African traditional belief systems as antithetical to the Christian faith.
By way of critique, it can be remarked that the book reveals the author’s biased attitude towards traditional world views. For instance, by calling African sacramental objects ‘charms’, the author frames Africa’s material religious culture as superstition, yet even Christianity has a long tradition of using sacramental objects as mediators of the health of body and mind.
The author also presents the Chewa God described in the myth of Kaphirintiwa as someone who is weak and remote, a God who is not concerned about the well-being of the people. This understanding of the concept of the God of the Chewa is not really accurate. The Chewa people are aware that their God is close to them and looks after them. The characterisation of Gulewamkulu as a promoter of witchcraft is a gross oversimplification of this traditional institution which has been known to promote discipline in society.
In conclusion, the book is important because it reveals the contemporary situation whereby Christians still resort to ‘charms’ and not the Gospel when faced with challenges in their lives. It also highlights areas where Christianity has overlooked the importance of traditional world views and practices in the process of evangelization in Malawi and beyond. Even more importantly, the book clearly shows how the religious background of a researcher can affect the choice of a research methodology, the range of data collected, and the interpretation of research findings.