Out of the Sea by Heritage Hill, Free for CAPC Members
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Few fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would disagree that one of the best aspects of Black Panther is Danai Gurira’s turn as Okoye, chief of King T’Challa’s Dora Milaje bodyguard. Prior to this role, Gurira already made herself known to genre aficionados as Michonne in The Walking Dead. What such viewers are less likely to know is that she was already an established playwright before she took on these roles. The American-born daughter of Zimbabwean academics, Gurira is credited as the author of four plays: In the Continuum (2005), Eclipsed (2009), The Convert (2012), and, most recently, Familiar (2015). Her play The Convert is of particular interest to Christians, as it strips away spiritualized clichés to interrogate the real, complex, and often all-too-earthy motives that truly prompt people to become religious converts.
Set in 1890s Rhodesia (the colonial name for Zimbabwe), The Convert focuses on a teenager first named Jekesai. As the play begins, Jekesai is fleeing from her uncle, who seeks to marry her as an ancillary wife to a wealthier man. In a desperate bid to escape this fate, she arrives at the abode of Chilford Ndlovu, a prominent local who has forsaken his family and traditions for Catholicism. Jekesai, at this point, understands little if anything about Christianity’s doctrinal distinctives, except that the Catholic faith forbids polygamy. Chilford is only too eager to win converts and, though somewhat exasperated, he shelters Jekesai from her uncle and quickly thrusts her into Catholic life, almost immediately renaming her Ester. The remaining play passes across several years’ time as Ester becomes Chilford’s star pupil, a distinction that turns sour when local tribes rise up violently against anything that they perceive as European, including the Christian faith. The play ends with a shocking act that draws out the question of the extent to which Christianity and African heritage can coexist.
Gurira’s play is unflinching but also suitably nuanced in its treatment of its titular subject. Evangelicals looking for a come-to-Jesus, walk-the-aisle moment, will leave the production disappointed, perhaps even angry. The closest character to this background is Chilford, who has quite consciously rejected his family and tribal relationships for his Christian faith. But Chilford is also fond of the European amenities that have come with his position (even if they’re all secondhand and second rate). He desires the prestige of being consecrated to the priesthood, even as his fellow African believers mock his naiveté for assuming the European ecclesial hierarchies will allow such a thing. In his zeal for converting others, he willfully blinds himself to his postulants’ poor understanding of the faith until his frustration with their theological ignorance finally bubbles up into fits of rage.
The play problematizes how we understand “conversion,” though it does so in a way that will be familiar to a wide-range of audiences, even many evangelicals (if we’re honest).Yet, Chilford is still the most sincere Christian among the characters. Mai Tamba, his housekeeper, plays along but has little interest in the faith. Far more than Chilford, his friend Chancellor desires power among the imperial leaders, and he often shocks his acquaintance with his lifestyle and apparent hypocrisy. His fiancée Prudence sees Christianity as a means toward an education that may elevate herself from the traditional women’s role in her society, though she too realizes she is playing a game and knows there are limits to how far the whites will let her get.
The flashpoint of the play, of course, is the eponymous convert of the play’s title. Born Jekesai (“to illuminate”), she is renamed Ester by Chilford upon her hasty and pragmatic “conversion.” Everything about this conversion moment would seem anathema to evangelical sensibilities. She appears to go along with Chilford primarily out of self-interest, knowing that as a Catholic she may be protected from her own culture’s patriarchal polygamy. She clearly understands little if anything about the faith she is ostensibly adopting, and it is clear that Chilford (consciously or not) conflates his application of the faith with European culture, insisting, for instance, that his new protégé both learn and act English.
Despite such ambivalences, however, The Convert steadfastly refuses to allow blanket dismissal of its Christian characters’ motivations. As a self-identified Zimbabwean Christian, Gurira is hardly likely to provide an entirely negative portrayal of the faith. For all his pretensions and mannerisms, Chilford is a genuine believer throughout the story who truly accepts Christ as his Lord and desires to conduct himself accordingly. Even his rakish friend Chancellor is more complicated that he seems—he flouts his societal advantages and is pleased with his sexual prowess. He comes very close to sexually assaulting Ester…only to sacrifice his life to save her later in the same scene!
And Ester herself is the most intriguing study. Notwithstanding the obviously practical motivations behind her initial conversion, she is an upstanding student, both in religion and in English culture. But confronted brutally with the reality of how European Christianity perceives her, she finally tells Chilford, “I couldn’t be like you, Mater—I couldn’t. . . . I am learning that NOTHING is stronger than blood” (83). Even here, though, Gurira portrays Ester’s declaration (with her reversion to her African name of Jekesai) not as a departure from the faith but as a search for a truly authentic African iteration of it. “I thought they would be like Jesus, show his love, love their enemy,” she laments (84). She takes issue not with the Bible or Christ and his teachings but with the white imperialist appropriation of them.
In one sense, then, the questions Gurira’s play raises are peculiarly African. The polygamy from which Jekesai seeks refuge, while not unknown in America, is not the widespread phenomenon it is in 1890s Rhodesia; indeed, questions of African polygamy were definitely on the minds of Victorian missionaries. The European nations that colonized Africa in the nineteenth century were so long a part of Christendom that the Bible’s cadences and teachings infused their cultures and people; whether those doctrines were accepted authentically or hypocritically (or even consciously rejected), the whites who swarmed the “dark continent” were haunted by them. And so missionaries (or other Europeans arriving) were forced to decide what aspects of their culture were nonnegotiable products of the gospel and what aspects were simply national or ethnic heritage. Too often, such distinctions were never made or drawn too heavily in favor of emphasizing the latter.
While all the characters wrestle with the impact of the Christian faith on their relationship to their indigenous culture, Jekesai is of course the focus. In the final scene, Gurira emphasizes the impotence of her Christianity in the face of white oppression. Attempting to use her status as “one of the good ones” (84) to save a life, she abjectly fails. In the end, she decides that the version of Christianity she has been taught is ill-suited to her home and her sense of “blood”—what she enjoins Chilford to is a distinctively African understanding of the faith. She returns to her Shona name and sings a hymn in her own language, “to the Lord my God in the tongue of my ancestors” (86). In translation, this song (which you can listen to Gurira singing here) proclaims, “God, you are good. I thank you, Jesus” (86-87).
One question Gurira raises, then, is whether Western culture must accompany conversion to a faith that existed for so long as a bedrock of Western culture. In the nineteenth century, this was a real debate. Dr. Lamin Sanneh contrasts the positions by holding up two of their most famous British representatives of the age: David Livingstone, the missionary who sought the empowerment of his African converts, and Cecil Rhodes (from whom “Rhodesia” derived its name), whose vision of religion went hand-in-hand with his vision of empire (142-55). “Both dominate Central Africa,” Sanneh writes. “Rhodes left a legacy of white domination, Livingstone of rising African aspirations” (150).
In the end, Gurira’s play doesn’t offer easy answers to these questions, and perhaps it shouldn’t.Most Christians of any stripe today would intuitively reject the notion that conversion should include other cultural practices. Yet sorting out Western cultural baggage in the missionary project is easier said than done. The African continent was a center of Christianity in its early centuries prior to Islam; these distinctive strains persist today in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and some Africans taken in the slave trade may have been Christians already. Still, as E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien note in their book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, a broad spectrum of European or American assumptions tend to shape (often unwittingly) Western interpretations of the Bible and, consequently, the trajectory of how the gospel is proclaimed (and conversion understood) in non-Western settings. Richards and O’Brien identify three triads of cultural blinders, many of which might be seen at work in The Convert. But it is their first triad, those “Above the Surface,” that bears the most obvious relevance to Gurira’s purposes: that is, cultural mores, race and ethnicity, and language.
It’s not easy to say exactly when Jekesai’s “true” conversion begins. But a pivotal moment surely emerges in the final scene, when she recognizes a Christianity apart from these European blinders. She turn away from their mores, dismissing white clothing, furniture, and understandings of justice that have failed her. She embraces her race and ethnicity, over and against the assumptions of Africans as inferior. And she returns to her native language for her name and for her worship. These and other developments in the scene will likely make readers or viewers uncomfortable, which is doubtless Gurira’s point, and not all Jekesai’s actions here can necessarily be condoned. But her search for an understanding of Christianity that has broken free from its imperial fetters is definitely admirable.
If, in one sense, The Convert is concretely African in its examination of Christian conversion, in another sense, Gurira’s dramatization is also more universal. While her characters interact primarily with Roman Catholicism, evangelicals will also take interest in the play’s evangelistic dynamics. After all, one of the four hallmarks of evangelical Christianity according to historian David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” is “conversionism.”
The play problematizes how we understand “conversion,” though it does so in a way that will be familiar to many evangelicals, if we’re honest. The classic evangelical Christian conversion story involves a conscious person (child or adult) who comes under conviction of sin and, in a specific moment (often through the utterance of a prayer), repents of his or her sins and confesses a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. While the conversion is an inward spiritual reality, this relationship then leads to sanctification, the process of becoming holier, which should be evident to others from a change in the convert’s life.
Here again, Chilford is the play’s most obvious “convert” in this sense. And from the moment Jekesai joins him and becomes “Ester,” her life likewise has been altered radically. But as we’ve already seen, their motives are anything but pristinely “spiritual.” I don’t think Gurira ever calls into question the genuineness of Chilford’s Christianity, even if the play ends by suggesting he too will have to pivot to a more African framework. But when exactly does Jekesai (or Ester) truly “convert”? Does her spiritual journey begin in Chilford Ndlovu’s home in 1895? This marks the beginning of visible change in her life, as she is instructed in the Bible and Christianity (and English). But she barely knows what she’s talking about in this moment. Her conversion certainly doesn’t follow the prescribed evangelical arc, even by revival “I-prayed-the-prayer” standards. Is her conversion at the end, when she moves toward becoming a more authentically African Christian? Yet this change emerges in the context of some troubling actions on her part, and she doesn’t seem to be denying that she was a Christ-follower before.
In the end, Gurira’s play doesn’t give easy answers to these questions, and perhaps it shouldn’t. A robust Christian soteriology recognizes that becoming a disciple of Christ is more than walking an aisle or praying a prayer (though these may indeed be involved). One can acknowledge the spiritual nature of Christian transformation without denying that even in this most vital of decisions, our composite human natures may be prompted by our psychological and sociological matrices in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. Salvation may be a process with a beginning, but it is still a process. And emphasizing the (very real) significance of individual commitment can coexist alongside a recognition of the ways in which we are shaped by communities, by families—by “blood,” to use Jekesai’s term.
Surely evangelical Christianity can retain its emphasis on the preeminence of sincere zeal in each believer’s conversion while recognizing the many routes by which people find their ways toward walking on Christ’s narrow road. For some, their trust in Christ began so long ago they can’t remember a time before; for others, salvation appeared starkly and suddenly while they sat in a pew; and for many, any number of moments could represent the true beginning of their journey, the moment of conversion. What matters is less how we got onto the path than the fact that we are on the right one, walking here and now in the footsteps of Jesus, confessing, “God, you are good. I thank you, Jesus.”
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