Kwame Kwei-Armah fronts the sixth programme in the series Christianity: A History. The theme: Christianity, colonialism, and the emergence of a new Christendom with its centre outside Europe and North America.
Five hundred years ago there were few Christians outside Europe and the Middle East. Then the Spanish and Portuguese embarked on colonial adventures in the Americas with the overt blessing of Rome. Mass conversions were attempted at the barrel of a gun. The indigenous culture fought back in the only way it could, by melding ancient traditions with the new Catholic faith. This is where the programme begins, and we find a modern Catholic priest who doubles as a Mayan shaman with no apparent qualms of conscience. Truth to tell, Christianity - and Judaism before it - have always been deeply syncretistic (just think of the impact of Zoroastrianism with its dualism and resurrections), so it seems a little hypocritical to throw one's hands up in holy horror because it happened once again in the New World.
The focus next shifts to Africa, and Ghana in particular, with a walk through Cape Coast Castle, the former centre of the British slave trade with dungeons below and an "Uncle Tom" Anglican chapel above. I recollect being told once that the British were thoroughly decent colonisers - much nicer than the wicked, cruel French, Germans and others. Theirs was "the gentle yoke of Ephraim." Don't believe a word of it!
A change of location to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, established long before Constantine's rape of the Western church. Here is a very different expression of Christianity, sharing unique links to Judaism and the Jerusalem Temple cult. Perhaps it's a measure of our lazy indifference that we know so little - and care even less - about this ancient tradition of which we are (and I certainly include myself in this) so woefully and pitifully ignorant.
While the Ethiopian church preserves a history and dignity that deserves the attention and respect of Christians in other traditions, the new and growing independent churches that have sprung up on the continent are something else again. The programme suggests that here is the future of Christendom, in the intellectual desert of Pentecostalism, complete with exorcisms, biblical literalism and faith healing. Unlike the Ethiopian church, the new churches are invariably the schismatic offspring of Western missions. What can't be doubted is that they are both fervent and growing. It is probably true, as the film suggests, that Africa today is much closer culturally to the world of first century Palestine than the effete and bloodless post-Enlightenment churches of the West, but is that really a good thing, and do we realistically expect it to stay that way?
That ultimately is a question for African Christians to answer. Dark Continents presents a sympathetic perspective that certainly deserves to be heard.