I know I’m a few weeks late on this, but I heard that Chinua Achebe died on March 21st. His greatest novel, Things Fall Apart, inspired my dissertation research.
As most readers of this blog know, I wrote my dissertation (defended 10 years ago!) on Early Christian basilicas in Central and Southern Greece. In Achebe’s novel the building and development of the little church in the Evil Forest represented the intrusion of the colonial of the missionary. Achebe is explicit. With the church came government, the disruption of traditional life, and ultimately spiritual and physical violence.
At the beginning of Chatper 16:
“When nearly two years later, Obierika paid another visit to his friend in exile the circumstances were less than happy. The missionaries had come to Umuofia. They had built their church there, won a handful of converts, and were already sending evangelists to the surrounding towns and villages.”
“We have now built a church,” said Mr. Kiaga, the interpreter, who was now in charge of the infant congregation. The white man had gone back to Umuofia, where he built his headquarters and from where he paid regular visits to Mr. Kiaga’s congregation at Mbanta.
“We have now built a church,” said Mr. Kiaga, “and we want you all to come in every seventh day to worship the true God.”
On the following Sunday, Nwoye passed and repassed the little red-earth and thatch building without summoning enough courage to enter. He heard the voice of singing and although it came from a handful of men it was loud and confident. Their church stood on a circular clearing that looked like the open mouth of the Evil Forest. Was it waiting to snap its teeth together? After passing and re-passing by the church, Nwoye returned home.”
And in Chapter 22, Achebe moves toward the climax of the novel with the church at the center:
“The band of egwugwu moved like a furious whirlwind to Enoch’s compound and with machete and fire reduced it to a desolate heap. And from there they made for the church, intoxicated with destruction.
Mr. Smith was in his church when he heard the masked spirits coming. He walked quietly to the door which commanded the approach to the church compound, and stood there. But when the first three or four egwugwu appeared on the church compound he nearly bolted. He overcame this impulse and instead of running away he went down the two steps that led up to the church and walked towards the approaching spirits.”
I won’t try to intervene in Achebe’s carefully constructed allegory other than to make the rather facile observation that the church building was power for the missionaries and the destruction of the church was colonial resistance. The architecture itself created conversion and colonial change.