Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Achebe's Novels and Their Religious Context: Missiological and Fictional Discourse

Norman R. Cary


Critical Concepts

In studying the relationships between the discourses of missiology and the black African novel, I have found helpful the notions of "postcoloniality" and "othering." Postcoloniality is rooted in Michel Foucault's study of power as it relates to discourse, the necessarily linguistic expression of human thought.1 He is interested in how power relations function not only in regards to discourse in its delimited sense, but communications in the wider sense which encompass exhortations, surveillance, reward and punishment, the health of the soul, as well as institutions like the family, schools, asylums, and prisons - all are symbols, signs, actions, "elements of meaning" which affect other people.2 However, Foucault so assiduously avoided judgment on the systems he analysed that he has been accused of quietism in the face of an irresistible and omnipresent network of power in modern society. Edward Said takes him to task for describing only the "actual realization" of cultural and political power evident in "official discourse" rather than opposing the destructiveness of social domination, a task which Said says has been left to political and literary critics, as well as feminist, minority, and third-world writers.3 He might be thinking of himself in this comment, for he had earlier observed:

Much of what he [Foucault] has studied in his work makes greatest sense not as an ethnocentric code of how power is exercised in modern society, but as part of a much larger picture involving, for example, the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world. He seems unaware of the extent to which the ideas of discourse and discipline are assertively European and how, along with the use of discipline to employ masses of detail (and human beings), discipline was used also to administer, study, and reconstruct - then subsequently to occupy, rule, and exploit - almost the whole of the non-European world.4

The discourse of laudatory missiology can be seen as an example of Said's claim, since it rationalizes European control of Africa and Africans. It is this discourse which is the religious context for modern African fiction and to which this fiction reacts both negatively and positively.

Other commentators pick up from Foucault the ideas of resistance and the "Other." His essay "The Subject and Power," which deals with how human beings are subjected or made subjects, gives them their cue. Here Foucault focusses on discursive strategies which resist "knowledge, competence and qualification: struggles against the privileges of knowledge . . . against secrecy, deformation, and mystifying representations imposed on people," against forms of "economic and state violence which ignore who we are individually, and also refusal of a scientific or administrative inquisition which determines who one is." A second important term is the "Other." Foucault remarks that "a power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship: that the 'other' (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up."5

"Othering" is perceiving the Other's cultural discourse as empty, valueless, or inferior, a rationalization which facilitates the projection onto the Other of the discourse of one's own culture and values.6 As Homi Bhabha and others have indicated, representatives of Western Christianity exemplified this process by believing that their religion emanated from the Word of God (Christ, the Bible), and that they were the communicators of the only means to salvation. Indigenous religions were regarded as idolatrous, devilish, or at best preparatory to the superior revelation of Christianity. It is hardly surprising that the Europeans and their early converts suppressed or marginalized the "heathenish" alternatives to their revelation and authority.

Nonfictional and fictional discourse may be said to be inseparable; the same may be said about European and African culture since the coming of the white man. But their inseparability has bred tensions and oppositions. Religiously, the conflict is between African traditional religion and the monotheisms introduced from abroad. Franz Fanon labels as "Manichean" the extreme dualism by which European Christianity valorizes the white world and regards the nonwhite world of the colonized as evil or nugatory:

The customs of the colonized people, their traditions, their myths - above all, their myths - are the very sign of that poverty of spirit and of their constitutional depravity. That is why we must put the DDT which destroys parasites the bearers of disease, on the same level as the Christian religion which wages war on embryonic heresies and instincts, and on evil as yet unborn. The recession of yellow fever and the advance of evangelisation form part of the same balance-sheet. But the triumphant communiques from the missions are in fact a source of information concerning the implantation of foreign influences in the core of the colonized people. I speak of the Christian religion, and no one need be astonished. The Church in the colonies is the white people's Church, the foreigners' Church. She does not call the native to God's ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master of the oppressor. And as we now, in this matter many are called but few chosen.7

As his title Manichean Aesthetics suggests, Abdul JanMohamed has critiqued African literature from the perspective of this dualism.8 A somewhat milder term for the oppression of the indigenous by those who perceive themselves as culturally superior is "cultural denigration."9 The dismissive attitude of the colonizers elicits a corresponding negative response by the colonized, who are attempting to overcome the inferiority which the colonists have assigned them10 by championing their own culture against the Western import.

When we examine religion in black African fiction, we see the permutations of Manicheanism played out in terms of race: the white rejection of the indigenous religion, the black rejection of imported religion, and the deleterious effects of both these choices on the colonized Africans. There is a Manichean dualism between the alternatives which some novelists present to the religious and novelistic texts preceding and surrounding their novels; it is as if the novelists deconstruct these texts, re-placing them with their oppositional fictional versions of African religious experience. The critics have, as we have seen, understood that this is not a static or synchronic opposition. Change is discernible because novelists have written about a thousand years of resistance from African traditional religionists against successive waves of imported monotheism and culture from Arabia and Europe. Their novelistic re-writings change character, therefore, as the fictional and nonfictional discourse to which they are reacting shifts ground.

Postcolonial authors may respond to the religion brought by the missionaries and conquerors by countering and mimicking the Eurocentric Christian story. Some novelists adapt the most radical of such strategies; they subvert11 and re-place the central figures in the Christian discourse they have received with "hybridized" figures who are interpreted in terms of the very religions and cultures the Europeans sought to supplant. This is most obviously true in the presentations of Independent Christianity, in the later, "ecumenical" view of Chinua Achebe, and in the sympathetically depicted Africanized European Christians.

Missiological Discourse

The missiological discourse which is the implicit or explicit context for the presentation of religion in the fictional discourse displays the dualism and hybridity which the cultural and literary theorists have noted. One of the outcomes of the evangelical revival in Europe and North America was the missionary society which sent missionaries and evangelists to Africa.12 These missionaries tended to make a radical distinction between revealed European religion and the "other" religions of the African "heathen." African people and culture in general were deemed inferior to European people and culture, so what was primitive and African must give way to what was civilized and European (there was sometimes a Darwinian tint to this thinking). One of the civilizing influences was thought to be the school, and missions historians have acclaimed the African "clamour" for European education.13 There was also the question of the money economy the European traders brought with them, to which the missionaries' response was mixed. Sometimes they disapproved of the profiteering traders, but often they cooperated with them. They also tended to approve of imperial political aims to "pacify" and "improve" the natives.14

The missiology which approves of European religious and cultural attitudes has come under attack recently by critics who are, from the perspective of their Afrocentrism, just as dualistic. These missiologists cite the fanatical intolerance of traditional religion on the part of Europeans who were not very educated,15 and by semi-educated African catechists, teachers, and converts. Missionary education has been called "a means of social control, to instill in the African a proper attitude of subservience towards the white man."16 Western-style education also has been the means by which Africans have been exposed to the acids of Western secularism. Finally, these critics have accused the missionaries of promoting an oppressive colonialist-capitalist structure17 which encouraged the very materialism they decried from their pulpits.

The decades of colonial power saw tremendous growth in the number of mission enterprises, missions staffs, and church members. In analysing the colonial period the affirmative missiologists tend to applaud the very hybridity which earlier had been condemned, by noting with approval that missionaries were likely to move away from their initial Eurocentrism towards the adoption of African ways. From the positive perspective, positions of ecclesiastical leadership were taken over by Africans, and indigenous ecclesiastical structures were formed. The Independent churches also emerged, led by Africans and more open than the missionary churches to traditional influences. There were changes in education, too. In the 1920s colonial authorities took an increasing role in funding and regulating education. Missions expanded their efforts to foster literacy, better health care and agricultural techniques, as well as better housing and economic opportunities for Africans.18

Disapproving missiological analysis views missionary education as propaganda, providing minimal, "practical" training in low-level skills, and not equipping Africans to analyse colonialism. The skeptical commentators notice that African teachers fretted at the poor quality of the mission schools and pressed for government-sponsored improvement of teacher-preparation, upgrading of physical facilities, and for increased "book education."

In addition, serious inconsistencies in Christian behavior were pointed out. Africans were disturbed by the rivalry between denominations, and by the more serious disruption of traditional African religion and culture which left them without a sure sense of how to act; consequently, immorality emerged as a major problem in church and society. Meanwhile sorcery and witchcraft remained credible to many Independent and missionary Christians,19 and many Africans continued in the faith of the ancestors. Furthermore, criticism has been directed against Western secularism, which has been particularly destructive to the faith of the "been-to" who returned from university in the West alienated from both Christianity and African religion.

Positive assessments of postcolonial religion20 have stressed that Christianity has spread throughout Africa, at the same time gaining a new sense of its national, regional, and international dimensions. On the other hand, hybridity has been celebrated as postcolonial African Christianity has been praised for becoming more African. The leadership, worship style and theological vocabulary have become indigenized, there has been more openness to traditional practices such as polygamy, and there has even been interaction with Muslims and Traditionalists.21

Negative missiology points out the increasing rivalry with Islam. In some areas Islam is spreading faster than Christianity, and violence has erupted between Fundamentalists of both religions.22 The growing number of Christian Fundamentalists have often been trained by their North American counterparts who perpetuate the earlier Eurocentrism which "othered" African religion. Another dualism is evident in the increased interest in traditional religion, especially among the educated elite searching for indigenous historical continuity and rejecting European-introduced Christianity. And dualism is observable in the comment that secularization was abetted by the focus of postcolonial governments and schools on material and economic progress,23 for in this instance materialism is seen to replace both Christian and African spirituality.

Novelistic Discourse

Achebe's most famous novel, Things Fall Apart,24 is set in the late nineteenth century, when Christianity was being introduced to Igboland. Despite the deficiencies of the traditional ways and the aggressiveness of the main character, Okonkwo, the novel is not propaganda for Christianity, because Okonkwo's fate seems to validate the ethical demands of traditional religion. His temper and pride cause him to transgress repeatedly against the powerful earth-goddess Ani.25 He beats his wife during the Week of Peace, he kills the captive boy Ikemefuna despite instructions not to participate in the ritual murder, and he shoots the son of a deceased man during his funeral. As for Christianity, its presentation is complex, as the characterization of the two white missionaries attests. The first, Mr. Brown, "trod softly" on Igbo belief. He is willing to discuss traditional religion with a clan elder, and he opens a hospital and a school. Many missionaries, however, resisted the idea of schools and hospitals as a diversion of energy from the work of evangelization, and they concentrated their efforts on assaulting traditional religion in order to win converts.26 Such a one is the Rev. Mr. Smith, whose intolerance leads to confrontation when zealous Enoch unmasks an egwugwu (masquerader) representing the ancestors, thereby assailing the very foundation of African belief.27 Thereupon the egwugwu destroy the church building, and shortly British authority is called in; military power stood behind the missionaries, though the missionaries were ambivalent about the political and military presence of Great Britain.28 The village leaders are detained and humiliated. As a result of this mistreatment Okonkwo, who has been as intolerant of Christianity as the missionaries are of Igbo religion, is so enraged that he kills a messenger from the District Commissioner, then hangs himself, a final affront to the Earth-goddess.

There are Igbos, however, who respond gratefully to what the missionaries preach - the social outcasts of the village, the mothers of twins who have been "thrown away" into the Evil Forest, parents of spirit-children, as well as the osu who are dedicated to a god. Low-status Igbos were historically among the first Christian converts.29 A different sort of convert is Okonkwo's son Nwoye, who is drawn to a religion which does not countenance his father's tyranny, the exposing of twins, or the killing of captives.30 In this novel the predominant attitude is a dualistic "othering" of foreign religious traditions. No Longer At Ease31 recalls denominational rivalry, but the present is dominated by the new secularism which has largely replaced traditionalism. When Nwoye's been-to son Obi returns from England, he is reminded of the historical competition between his Anglican school and the Roman Catholic school.32 Now, though, materialism is more important than either traditionalism or Christianity.33 Obi has lost his faith, and later takes bribes to support a lavish lifestyle. The Christian piety of Nwoye, on the other hand, is flawed by lingering loyalty to Igbo religion; here there is hybridity, though it is unconscious and unadmitted. Nwoye has become Isaac the catechist who hates anything he associates with paganism34 but falls back on tradition when he opposes his son's plans to marry Clara, an osu. Obi's mother also reverts to paganism, threatening to commit suicide if Obi marries Clara.

Arrow of God is set in the 1920's, before secularism became dominant. This novel re-plays at a later stage the life and death of a flawed protagonist in a confrontation between traditional religion and missionary Christianity. The ways in which this confrontation is played out also repeat. A Christian church is set up in a traditional village. Among the Christians there are two attitudes regarding traditional religion: John Goodcountry's fervor prompts Oduche, the Christian son of Chief Priest Ezeulu, to capture the sacred python. Goodcountry is opposed by Moses Unachukwu, who may be open to hybridization out of pragmatic motives, for he appreciates the religious and economic power of the white man which he hopes to profit from himself.

Ezeulu is of two minds as well. He sends Oduche to the missionaries in order to gain access to their wisdom, while fearing the aggressiveness of the new religion. This is nothing like a policy of hybridization, however, for his devotion to his god is unquestionable, as his participation in the New Yam festival demonstrates.35 And he is sincere when he refuses to obey Winterbottom's summons to Okperi because such behavior does not befit his sacerdotal role.

Ezeulu has a negative side too. He wonders whether he is merely the instrument of Ulu; can he refuse to authorize the New Yam Harvest Festival? At the other extreme, he dreams of being dishonored together with his god. Like Okonkwo, Ezeulu feels increasingly alienated from an unsupportive community. In reaction, he claims a special vision for himself and talks of sacrificing Oduche to the white man, while at the same time he feels a "haughty indifference" to the clan36 which turns into a desire for revenge.37 His dream after he returns from Okperi convinces him that he should not accede to the people's wishes. After delaying the New Yam Festival he interprets the people's anguish as a kind of scapegoating. His downfall is disastrous not only for the people but for traditional religion, because the hungry populace dedicate their crop to the Christian God while construing Ezeulu's insanity as the judgment of the ancestors against his disregard for the clan he is supposed to serve.38

Ezeulu's strategy of resistance has led instead to a religious replacement of the cult of the ancestors by Christianity.

Secularism is more widespread in A Man of the People,39 set after independence. Religious references merely echo left-over practices by the old, or are transferable to the political sphere. Idili's friend Max remembers a poem he wrote, "Dance-offering to the Earth-Mother," which employs both traditional and biblical imagery. But for Idili, whose father is an Anglican priest, Christianity is just a memory; the poem is really about European imperialism. An egwugwu dance has become mere entertainment during the Christian season of Christmas. And the carver of a statue doesn't understand that a woman shaking her fist at the idol shows respect.

In Anthills of the Savannah strength for the future is to be found in a deliberate affirmation of hybridization, which takes the form of an explicit appeal to all the religious traditions in Nigeria.40 This may seem unlikely, since in much of the novel Christianity is unappealing and Islam is seldom mentioned. Sanctimonious Professor Okong finagled an American doctorate for himself despite his U.S. Baptist sponsors, then returned to Kanga (fictionalized Nigeria) where he leads an Independent congregation and functions as informal chaplain to the federal Cabinet, advising the Military President that dissenters are "heretics." He warns the President in fawning biblical language that neither crusading editor Ikem nor his friend Chris, the Minister of Information, is politically trustworthy. No wonder Beatrice, Chris's girl, refers to Okong as a Rasputin. Another unbearable Christian is Beatrice's maid Agatha, who belongs to "one of those new rapturous churches with which Bassa [Lagos] is infested nowadays."41 She is a puritan who disapproves of the love-making of Beatrice and Chris. Later, after Ikem and Chris are killed, Beatrice transcends her moralism with sympathy and sings a Christian blessing for Ikem's daughter.

Unlike Christianity, indigenous religion is presented positively. Beatrice, who went from an Anglican mission to British university, is associated with Igbo religion. Ikem senses in her a village priestess possessed of the god, and she later acts out this role: when Chris makes love to her it is as if he has entered into "her temple. Clearly this was her grove and these her own peculiar rites."42

Life outside the shrine is not so joyous. Ikem and Chris are killed as dissidents against the military regime, and Beatrice is left grieving. She is brought out of her grief when she takes responsibility for Ikem's girl Elewa, and participates in the Igbo naming ceremony of her baby presided over by Elewa's old uncle. We have noted Agatha's Christian contribution. Islam is represented by Aina, the wife of one of the anti-government conspirators, and by Captain Abdul Medani, who was with Chris when he died. Islam and Christianity are symbolically united with indigenous religion in the dance.

Looking at Achebe's novels against the background of missiology, we see that they echo both positive and negative criticism. His presentations of the weaknesses of Christianity and secularism recall anti-Christian and anti-European commentary. Furthermore, the novels depict the ability of African religion to hold the culture together, its tenacity for several generations, and the corruption that has followed its decline. But Achebe is not merely resisting Christianity, but elements of traditionalism as well, when he contrasts the Christian notion of a God of love with the cruelty of Igbo religion. The final stance seems to be the advocacy of positive hybridization, for in his latest novel Achebe offers an "ecumenical" hope which incorporates the aspirations of all the faith traditions. 43

Wright State University, Ohio

Notes

1 David R. Shumway, Michel Foucault (Boston: Twayne, 1989) 16.

2 Michel Foucault, "The Subject and Power," in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus & Paul Rabinov, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982) 218.

3 Edward Said, "Foucault and the Imagination of Power," in Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. David Couzens Roy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) 150-51, 153.

4 Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983) 222.

5 Foucault, 212, 220.

6 Stephen Slemon, "Cultural Alterity and Colonial Discourse," Southern Review 21 (1987) 103.

7 Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 1966) 33-34.

8 Abdul R. JanMohamed, Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1983).

9 Bill Ashcroft et al, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989) 9.

10 JanMohamed, 7.

11 Homi K. Bhabha, "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817," in Europe and Its Others, vol. 1. Ed. Francis Baker et al. (Colchester: Univ. of Essex, 1978) 97.

12 Richard Gray, "The Origins and Organization of the Nineteenth-Century Missionary Movement," in The History of Christianity in West Africa, ed. O. U. Kalu (London: Longman, 1980) 15-21.

13 C. P. Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa, vol. 3 (London: Lutterworth Press, 1955) 235.

14 See J. F. Ekechi, Missionary Enterprise and Rivalry in Igboland 1857-1914 (London: Frank Cass, 1972) 156-57.

15 O. U. Kalu, "Introduction" to "The Home Base:Origins and Policies of the Christian Mission," in The History of Christianity in West Africa, ed. O. U. Kalu (London: Longman, 1980) 12-13.

16 Lamin Sanneh, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1983) 127.

17 Greg Cuthbertson, "The English-Speaking Churches and Colonialism," in Theology and Violence in the South African Debate, ed. Charles Villa-Vincencio (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1988) 19-28.

18 C. P. Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa, vol. 4 (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958) 279-303.

19 Groves, 350-51; G. D. Oosthuizen, Post-Christianity in Africa: A Theological and Anthropological Study (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1968) 197.

20 I have built on Groves' outline of positives and negatives, 315-42.

21 For a conservative objection to such syncretism see Finbar Flanagan, "Missionaries without Christ[?]" African Ecclesial Review 32:5 (1990) 263-66.

22 Judith Miller, "The Islamic Wave," The New York Times Magazine, May 31, 1992, 22+.

23 R. Elliott Kendall, "The Missionary Factor in Africa," in Christianity in Independent Africa," ed. Edward Fashole-Luke et al. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), 20; Peter B. Clarke, West Africa and Christianity (London: Edward Arnold, 1986) 196-97.

24 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann Educational, 1958).

25 See Carolyn Nance, "Cosmology in the Novels of Chinua Achebe." Conch 3:2 (1971), 124; Emmanuel Obiechina, Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975), 212; Cosmas Okechukwu Obiego, African Image of the Ultimate Reality: An Analysis of Igbo Ideas of Life and Death in Relation to Chukwu-God (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1984) 115-18.

26 J. F. Ade Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria 1841-1891: The Making of a New Elite (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1965) 18.

27 Obiechina, 211.

28 H. E. Afigbo, "Christian Missions and Secular Authorities in South-Eastern Nigeria from Colonial Times," in West African Christianity, ed. O. U. Kalu (London: Longman, 1980) 182-83.

29 Elizabeth Isichei, "Seven Varieties of Ambiguity: Some Patterns of Igbo Response to Christian Missions," Journal of Religion in Africa 3 (1970) 209-10.

30 C. L. Innes, "Language, Poetry, and Doctrine in Things Fall Apart," in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, ed. C. L. Innes & Bernth Lindfors (Washington: Three Continents, 1978) 119-20.

Several critics generalize from this conversion. David Carroll writes of the "loving personal care for the individual [by which the Christian God] appeals to all the unresolved fears of Umuofia" (Chinua Achebe [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980], 53). An Indian critic writes:

The indigenous African religion is rather like one's childhood - a transparent faith, a sense of fear of the adult (supernatural) world and also the attendant fantasies with which childhood tries to protect itself. Christianity is maturity - man has won the badge of suffering, learnt the complexities of killing, sin and self-sacrifice. In Things Fall Apart Achebe has sung the elegy of Africa's vanishing past as we mingle in the drama of the new, bitter experience that chases away the ancient child-like innocence of a whole race. (Prema Nandakumar, "The Theme of Religion in the Fiction of Chinua Achebe," Journal of the Karnatak University: Humanities 20 [1976] 258).

Such patronizing praise is out of place. The final sentence of the paragraph about Nwoye's conversion indicates that Achebe is not justifying missionary Christianity but demonstrating the young man's naive desperation.

31 Chinua Achebe, No Longer At Ease [1960] (New York: Ivan Oblensky, 1961).

32 See Ekechi, 132-38.

33 David Carroll, Chinua Achebe. 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin's, 1980) 62.

34 Achebe has assigned Nwoye the Christian name of Isaac, as if to recall the biblical character whose father was willing to sacrifice him. See Donald J. Weinstock, "Achebe's Christ-Figure," in New African Literature and the Arts, ed. Joseph O. Okpaku, vol. 3 (New York: Crowell and Third Press, 1970) 64.

35 At the festival Ezeulu recites the coming of Ulu to the confederated villages, the liturgical version providing a contrast to the more pragmatic story we have elsewhere of the hired medicine men fashioning a new protective deity for the confederation. But neither story is presented as the "truer" one. What M. M. Mahood takes to be "a certain ambiguity in the story about the nature of Ulu" ("Idols of the Den: Achebe's Arrow of God," in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, ed. C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors. [Washington: Three Continents, 1978], 189) is an ambiguity which separates liturgical recitation and religious pragmatism, a separation which does not exist in the Igbo scheme of things (Isichei, 215). This seems more plausible than Maureen Lewis' explanation that Ulu is different from the "elemental deities Chukwu and Ala who date from man's awareness of himself and his environment" ("Ezeulu and His God: An Analysis of Arrow of God," Black World [Chicago] 24:2 [1974], 84), or Oladele Taiwo's claim that vesting religious authority in the people is a mark of "increasing secularization" (Culture and the Nigerian Novel [New York: St. Martin's, 1976], 134), this interpretation appearing to ignore the communal nature of Igbo society. Besides, Achebe has pointed out that Igbo religion is a process of "ongoing dialogue" (Morning Yet on Creation Day [London: Heinemann Educational, 1975], 102). George Garrelts adds that the Igbo people "are accustomed to being argumentative even with their god" ("Ecumenical Implications of the Dismantling of the Ibo Myth in Achebe's Arrow of God," Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center [Atlanta] 12 (Fall 84-Spring 1985), 112).

36 Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God (New York: John Day, 1967) 160.

37 Ezeulu has already been under attack from his rival Nwaka and his half-brother the priest of the python-god, Idemili, whose criticism undermines Ezeulu's reputation with the villagers only because traditional belief has already been undermined by the white man and his religion (Obiechina, 237-38).

38 This is not the only reading of the ending. G. D. Killam says that in this apocalyptic situation the god is free to abscond but his priest must remain faithful regardless of the consequences ("Notions of Religion, Alienation and Archetype in Arrow of God," in Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature, ed. Rowland Smith. [London: Longman, 1976], 160). Robert Wren asserts that this sacrificial faithfulness is ordained by no less a figure than Ulu in order to transfer spiritual power to the new deity. He bases this interpretation on Achebe's speculation about the Chief Priest in the preface to the novel's revised edition (1974):

For had he been spared Ezeulu might have come to see his fate as perfectly consistent with his high historic destiny as victim, consecrating by his agony - thus raising to the stature of a ritual passage - the defection of his people. And he would gladly have forgiven them. (Cited in "From Ulu to Christ: The Transfer of Faith in Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God." Christianity and Literature 27:2 [1978] 37).

Building on this remark, Wren notes that the protective function of Ulu has been taken over by the British military, and that in inspiring Ezeulu to defy Winterbottom and refuse to consent to the planting of the new yam harvest, the Igbo deity is arranging his own demise:

Protector of the people, cleanser of society, and governor of the ecological cycle, [Ulu] sacrificed his own priest rather than see these powers revert to an autochthonic predecessor [Idemili] who would be unable to deal with the new conditions of life under a European colonial government. Thus the god fulfilled his functions in destroying himself. (Wren, 28)

It is more accurate, I think, to see Achebe not as applauding the demise of Ulu but describing a religious and cultural transformation which is historically evident but of ambiguous value, given the descriptions in the novels of religious dogmatism and intolerance, and of political and cultural imperialism.

39 Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People (London: Heinemann Educational, 1966).

40 Secular materialism introduced from the West is not to be confused with Igbo materialism which was controlled by Igbo religion, as Achebe explains in his essay "The Role of Writer in a New Nation" (Nigeria Magazine 81 [June 1984], cited. in G. D. Killam, The Novels of Chinua Achebe [New York: Africana Publishing, 1969], 30). Though the West brought secular benefits to Africa, its secular materialism undermined both Christianity and traditional religion, and in the post-colonial setting of Anthills of the Savannah religion has been vitiated by ambition and the lust for power. Achebe's solution, however, is not more secularism but a new spirituality.

41 Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah [1987] (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1988) 76.

42 Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, 104.

43 Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, 208.


New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 19 April, 2015