By Bola Bolawole
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Yuletide affords both faithful and critics alike the opportunity not only to exchange the season’s greetings but also to ask probing, even if troublesome, questions about Jesus Christ and Christianity as a whole. For instance, was Christ actually born on the December 25 that Christians all over the world celebrate as his birthday? The Jehovah Witnesses’ sect especially has made an issue of this, insisting, with “proofs”, that Christ could not have been born anywhere in December but that October/November looked more like it. Right or wrong, the important thing is that Christ was born into this world! That we may not have known the exact date does not vitiate that fact or reduce its importance. We read about other (lesser) great men and women whose exact dates of birth are unknown; yet, we learn useful lessons.
When queried why he had multiple dates of birth, a former president of this country responded that he relied on the account of elders since his date of birth was not recorded. He had picked a date until superior evidence surfaced that another date was more like it. So, he shifted ground. The joke he added was the clincher: If superior argument arrives tomorrow to prove that another date of birth appears more authentic, he would shift ground again! The overarching importance of the celebration of the birthday of Christ is the understanding that he came into the world. No one disputes that!
Is the celebration of Christmas justifiable, evidence having been led by some that the date was originally devoted to pagan worship and celebration? Christians, it has been argued, seized upon that date and, over time, crowded out the pagans and converted what used to be a pagan day to one of Christianity’s holiest dates. That is strategic, if I may say! And if I may ask, what were we before we became Christians or whatever? Traditional religions, customs, traditions and practices alien or antithetical to Christianity existed from the beginning of times – and are still with us to this very day.
Of all the converts to religions other than theirs, Africans have been one group that jettisoned their culture along with their traditional religions, accepting hook-line-and-sinker the new religion and the culture of the missionaries, be they Christian or Muslim. Other peoples have held on to their religion or culture or both. New thinking is that this wholesale rejection of what had served the African people well from time immemorial, ranking their civilization as, perhaps, the first human civilization, and the aping of alien culture, is at the roots of the dysfunction that has stunted the growth of the Continent and arrested its development. Religion emerged out of, or has paganism as its origin: True or false? Indeed, paganism itself is religion: True or false?
Should Christians celebrate Christmas or is it a mere waste of time and resources? Is Christmas one of the “ceremonies” Christ commanded while departing this earthly plane that Christians or his followers do in remembrance of him? Of course, it is trite that Christians were not called Christians during Christ’s lifetime. They were so-called first time at Antioch after the death and resurrection of Christ and it simply means “people whose conduct, speech and beliefs were like those of Jesus Christ” While he walked this earthly plane, Jesus never celebrated himself; in fact, he preached that the leader should be servant to others and he washed the feet of his disciples to give a graphical demonstration of this.
While departing, Jesus commanded Christians to preach the gospel to the uttermost end of the world. He also commanded that Holy Communion be observed, “… as often as ye do this, in remembrance of me” There is no denying the fact, then, that the celebration of Christmas is a latter-day phenomenon. Does that make it sacrilegious? I doubt! We remember our earthly mortals, like our departed parents and other loved ones. We, too, will love to be remembered by those we leave behind. “Remembrance”, as Christ commanded, is not a bad idea at all!
It is not a surprise, however, that questions will always be raised about Christ and the mode of worship adopted by different denominations, peoples, places and climes. The face of religion is changing more radically in our own days than in other times before. Technology is the major decider – and definer – of what religion is today and shall be in the future. The best “megaphone” Jesus used was asking Peter to pull his boat a little away from the shore so he (Jesus) could address the people. His best and fastest means of transportation was a mule. Today, the best of electronic gadgets, including the ubiquitous social media, are available. Pastors cruise about in supersonic jets. The Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys will be done in a twinkle of an eye in today’s global village that our world has become. But, always, there is the negative side to technology, which will “kill” religion if care is not taken. Indeed, the tell-tale signs are already there for all to see.
A trend is emerging – and it is that of Christians without churches. In Europe where Christianity was spread to Africa, the tides have turned. Ironically, African missionaries are those trooping to the advanced and industrialised world today to preach the gospel and turn the lost sheep of Europe and America back to Christ. When you have separated the real evangelists from the mercantilist, emergency, 419-ner “evangelists”, Africa still appears (seemingly?) more Christian than Europe and America.
Recent studies show that close to 70 percent of Christians in Europe do not go to church or, better still, have no church. Their phone is their church. They listen to the preachers they like. They choose the time and place to “worship” They pay their tithes and offering online. They set the duration of the service. They do all of these from the comfort of their home. No jumping into the car and burning needless fuel. No traffic to contend with. No time-wasting by pastors who don’t keep to time. No sweating in the hellish heat that defines many of our churches. No inconvenience of unusable toilets. No stalking by those who have turned themselves into beggars’ lurking by the “Beautiful Gate”. In 10 or 15 minutes, “church service” on the go is done away with and one can get on to other activities. Nigerian churches are already keying-in into some of the features of the church of the future where the influence and excesses of religion barons will be seriously curtailed.
Christians without churches mean empty churches during service. Only a handful of people – the oldies especially – are to be found in big cathedrals in Europe these days. The younger elements have no time and patience for the shenanigans of pastors. A technology-crazy generation must put to use the i-phone that cost them a fortune to procure. They still answer the name “Christian” but their “pastor” may never know them one-on-one. Their church is no longer a church premises or any known address; their church is in their pocket. No longer would anyone waste time and effort travelling to Sokoto (hundreds of kilometres away) in search of what is right there in their sokoto (trousers’) pocket.
Every Sunday as I drive from my home in the Agege area of Lagos to Ketu where my church is, my family listen to, discuss and pray the Open Heavens for the day. In addition, we listen to four or five other preachers, local and foreign. Internet has given a quantum leap in opportunities to a wider audience like never before; this, however, has come with its own unique challenges. Charlatans of all hues thrive on social media. As more and more people remain in the comfort of their homes to enjoy services hitherto provided exclusively in church premises, digital churches will, in no time, reduce the influence and potency of traditional churches exactly the same way the digital press has done to the traditional media.
The shenanigans of church leaders – the church bourgeoisie – have also not helped matters. The ostentatious lifestyle of men and women of God in the face of crippling poverty of church members; the suffocating financial demands made on church members by the church bureaucrats on a daily basis; the heavy burdens placed on the church at the bottom rungs of the ladder by church leaders (the Ogas at the top) to maintain, even expand, privileges competing with those Martin Luther railed against to kick-start the Reformation; the preponderance of wolves in sheep’s clothing these days; and the dire economic condition of many church goers to which many church leaders maintain a straight face – have all combined to impact negatively on church attendance and revenue.
I dare to say that runaway corruption and financial malfeasance in our churches/mosques make a mockery of the one in the polity. Like the polity, our churches/mosques cry for restructuring. The prognosis for the future is bleak, very bleak indeed, except the leaders of religion leave their comfort zone to seize the bull by the horns. They have to do so ere it gets too late and they slip into irreverence and irrelevance.