God in community

Tom Sutcliffe turns to the written word to consider the divine presence in the life of a national religion and culture

The umbilical link between our sense of identity as human beings and our religion and culture has seldom been so perceptively explored as it is by the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in his astonishing and revelatory first novel, Things Fall Apart, which I have been lucky enough to learn about because it was the chosen book of my wife’s reading group a few months back.

Nature of identity

Do I care about Englishness in any particular racial sense? Or is what matters to me about Englishness nothing less than the truths that matter – which I associate with the culture I have been proud to inherit and have come to love: Shakespeare, Purcell, Keats, William Byrd, the King James Bible, the Cranmer Book of Common Prayer as it evolved, Jane Austen, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Evelyn Waugh, George Eliot, Dickens, Sheridan, Congreve, Dr Johnson?

A random round-up, of course, but prompted by the recognition that Achebe – who was no sentimentalist about British colonisation or about the superstitions of the tribal Nigeria – has written a work that sprang both from Thomas Hardy and from Nigeria itself, and yet was an utterly authentic and truth-telling English masterpiece in beautifully restrained, immaculately chosen language.

Achebe, born 1930, managed to get his book published in London in 1958 by Heinemann whose educational adviser Donald McRae, newly returned from visiting West Africa, could see its profound confidence and originality (it had of course been rejected by a succession of British publishers). Achebe’s parents were evangelical Protestants. His father taught in a missionary school. But Achebe recognised the complexity of progress and conversion. With a subtly satirical view of the colonisers he gives eternal literary life to a way of being human that Christian and Muslim Nigerians might otherwise simply have obliterated from memory.

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim captures many of the eternal spiritual qualities of India. The experiential journey of life and the search for wisdom and values in the maturing of an adolescent boy are marvellously and tellingly described. But Achebe’s book is not the vision of an outsider however sympathetic looking in.

Strength and weakness

Instead we are through the looking glass to the feelings experienced by his tragic central character, the strong man Okonkwo who in the end proves as weak as the father for whose failure he tries to compensate throughout the story. Okonkwo’s beheading of the white man’s messenger in the final pages and his subsequent suicide are noble acts, however desperate, because Achebe’s depiction of Okonkwo establishes indelibly the truth of traditional values and consciousness which Christianity displaced.

In taking his own life Okonkwo sins against the earth, denies the religious tradition he seeks to preserve, and disgraces his family. But Achebe, drawing his book’s title from Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, aligned himself with the depths of twentieth-century doubt. Okonkwo is an authentic tragic hero, and what astonished me coming fresh to the book was Achebe’s treatment of the pre-Christian beliefs of his tribesmen in the Lower Niger: it reveals how firmly the social contract of Indo-European and African religion before Christ and Mohammed tied the community together.

Achebe shows the leaders of the community exercising or incarnating the charism of divinity required in particular circumstances. His descriptions of the interface between the ordinary people and their gods are of great poetic power, and these gods’ loss of power in the triumph of Nigerian Christianity (however inevitable) is a kind of disaster for the local culture and identity.

Divine presence

I have often wondered how anybody could continue to take seriously tribes of Greek, Norse or Hindu gods whose behaviour so closely mirrors the aberrations of the ruling classes. In a sense Christianity and Islam embody the democratisation of a Godhead before whom all are equally remote – but for the presence of the Word in one or other form. In the African village the wishes of the gods were dramatically accessible, as they had been for aeons.

Achebe’s book is essential reading. The father-son consciousness he portrays relates to so many European art-works and concerns, I thought watching ENO’s new production of Mozart’s great Idomeneo – infuriated as I became by Katie Mitchell’s wobbly sense of what a modern act of human sacrifice would involve (a handgun cannot do the job of an axe, too quick and too much like personal punishment, rather than the fulfilment of a virtuous but painful obligation – though crucifixion made its cultural point by being a disgrace reserved for the dregs of society; we always need irony in the soul).

The way Christianity in England, thanks to the genius of Anglicanism, has provided the cement to hold our warring tribes together is not so different after all from what Achebe shows. Religion and culture are inseparable. I would not want a national church that was capable of serving people so well for so long to lose any part of its inheritance. ND