Evangelical Thoughts on Wole Soyinka

By: Deji Yesufu

Prof. Wole Soyinka should be one of Nigeria’s most accomplished personalities. His accomplishments are the results of his own works and are genuinely meritorious. Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 – the first African to do so on pure merit. As a humanist, he has remained steadfast to his personal commitment to bettering the lives of people all around him – especially the Nigerian people. His humanist beliefs have led him to champion the course for a better Nigeria through various activisms. Even till now, the Professor would very willingly join protest groups on matters germane to his heart.

Wole Soyinka has been protesting for a long time. He broke into national reckoning in 1965 when he held up a radio anchor with a gun and made them play a tape of his own reading of the results of the Western Region’s elections – to the chagrin of the Akintola Government. Justice Kayode Esho will later discharge and acquit the young Soyinka. Wole Soyinka has since gone on to help inaugurate a Road Safety program for the country, which has helped to curtail the high rate of vehicular accidents on our roads. From an account in his Memoirs: You Must Set Forth at Dawn, one could guess that among Soyinka’s greatest accomplishments will be fighting the Sani Abacha despot and seeing that man’s end.

A brief article like this is insufficient to chronicle Wole Soyinka’s achievements and I do not intend to do that at all. Rather I want to express in writing my evangelical thoughts on Prof. Wole Soyinka. I had thought to write the great man an open letter but I feel so terribly inadequate to address him directly that I will rather do so indirectly through my personal musing, or if you like, daydreaming, about a Christian Wole Soyinka. I understand that Soyinka is neither Muslim nor Christian. Judging by what I’ve read about him, I believe that the Prof is a traditional worshipper of one of the old Yoruba gods –  probably Ogun.

In his writings Wole Soyinka can be seen as someone who is very conversant with the Christian religion. His native land of Egba was one of the earliest budding points of Christian missionary activities in the early 20th century and young Soyinka, who was exposed early to Western education, would certainly have gone to Church. Soyinka refers to his mother as “The Christian”. I suspect she might have been a devout Christian and must have instilled in the young Soyinka some basic Christian values. I have not read any account of where and how Prof. Wole Soyinka finally renounced belief in the Christian God but it certainly must have come at some point in his life.

An account in his Memoirs reveals his disdain for many Christians and their hypocrisy. As the account goes, Soyinka has a collection of images somewhere in his house. Each of these little images represents one of the African gods. When he needs to relax or gain some inspiration for his writing, he would go and sit among these collections and meditate. They were quite a number but he knew each of them well enough and where they stood. About that time, 1968-70, Soyinka had been incarcerated by the Gowon Government for his role in the Biafran crisis. After he was released, his first port of call was his collection of images. Lo and behold a number of them were missing. Before he went to prison, Soyinka’s younger brother was beginning to profess to be “born again”. Soyinka was suspicious of him but said nothing. Eventually it was discovered that it was this “Christian” brother of his that had looted his collections and sold them to a foreigner. Reading this account in the book, one could discern that Soyinka was still hurt from that incident. No wonder his disdain for Christianity.

Another account of Soyinka’s encounter with Christianity was his famous media debate with Prof. Muyiwa Awe. Incidentally I met Prof. Awe through my wife and we visited his home in Ibadan in 2009. He was also at our wedding. Soyinka, Awe and five others founded the Pirate Confraternity in University of Ibadan in the early 1950s when they were undergraduates. The humanist tendencies that have driven the Professor’s actions up to now, were the driving motives behind the formation of that confraternity. Unfortunately it has led to many cult groups on our campuses and this was the crux of the debate Soyinka had with Prof. Awe.

Prof. Muyiwa Awe had become a Pentecostal Christian and had joined a committee in the University of Ibadan to help end cultism on the campus. Up till his death Pastor Awe, as I knew him, had a ministry for exposing cults. At some point, Awe and Soyinka got into a media war on this matter of cultism. Awe had suggested in a write up that certain elements, which himself and other founders of the Pyrate Confraternity had instituted at the founding of the group, were at the root of the violence among cult groups in the country. Soyinka responded by denying that fact. The media exchange between the two went on for quite a while.

These are the challenges that I find myself faced with as I nonetheless endeavour to present the gospel to a humanist. It might help my discussion here if I begin by stating that the God of the Bible is a humanist (John 3:16). Humanists do everything for the good of humanity: God sent his Son Jesus to redeem humanity. Some humanists believe there is no life after this one and so we will do well to live this one well enough, and leave behind a better world. Well, Christians do believe there is a life after now but they are also committed to leaving the world better than they met it, thus the Christian championing of education, health and a just society. Christianity also broached the idea of a communal society. In the historical book of Acts, the Bible records that the first Christian group lived together in a community and had all things in common (Acts 4:32). While humanists are not necessarily communists, they share in this socialist idea and we see in Acts that it is Christians that first started healthy socialism.

Despite the aforementioned, humanists have many differing points with Christianity. There is no point spending time to list them here for a debate since all religions and philosophies will always propose a certain first principles that their adherents cannot compromise on. For example, Islam considers the Qur’an as God’s revelation to humanity while Christians regard the Bible as that revelation. Except God proves either of these first principles false for either of these adherents there can be no meeting point. In spite of this challenge, I will take the chance of looking at one problem with humanism – one challenge that all humanity shares; It is the humanist’s self-righteousness.

If one were to ask a humanist why he does not consider Christianity as a religion he may wish to practice, it is likely he would respond by saying that there are very little Christians do that he does not do. In fact where Christians have been known for their hypocrisy and moral failures, humanists have triumphed. A typical example is the subject of our discussion today, Soyinka. What other person, Christian or otherwise, have done more to better the lives of Nigerians? I will willingly admit there is none. In fact I alluded to that fact in the beginning of this article.

But therein lies the challenge with self-righteousness. If the Christian message is ever relayed correctly to anyone, it usually states that human good is not sufficient to merit God’s approbation. This is the essential difference between the Christian faith and other religions, including humanism (If humanism can be called a religion). Every religion upholds its good works to earn divine approbation. In a sense, Christians uphold their unrighteousness to earn divine approbation. This is the crux of the theology of men like Apostle Paul, who taught that all men have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). And lest the Jew will glory in his covenantal relations with God and his ability to keep the Mosaic laws, Paul says even the Jews were equally sinners before a just God (Romans 2:23).

Therefore to earn divine approbation, the Christian admits his sins, his failures, his self-righteousness, his idols and his total unworthiness. It is in the light of these that he repents and confesses the righteousness of another – the righteousness of the Son of God – Jesus Christ. This is the biblical concept of grace: partaking of God’s largesse for the unworthy. Not based on one’s merit but on the merit of another, even Jesus. When the humanist presents his good works before God, the Christian Bible teaches that he would be condemned. For God is too holy to behold unrighteousness. Because even if a man were to possess a billion good deeds but has just one sin along with them, he stands condemned before a holy God. Therefore obtaining God’s approbation must come via a righteousness that is outside of us. This is the Christian gospel.

I end this discussion with the story of my encounter with a man. He was born a Muslim. He got converted to evangelical Christianity in his youths. He yet again practised the white garment religion at some latter point. But the moment he was sixty years old, he realized the end had arrived. He took a sincere look through his odyssey with various religions and converted back to Islam. I suspect that he must have remembered the religion of his childhood – a religion free from all hypocrisy and decided on that. I said that with the hope that Wole Soyinka may consider the religion of his parents, Christianity, and make a commitment to Christ in the twilight of his life. May the God of heaven, with whom nothing is impossible, grant that the Professor consider this request in the privacy of his hearts.

These are my evangelical thoughts on Wole Soyinka and may God bless these words on the hearts of all sincere readers. Amen.

First published on mouthpiece.com.ng in 2017. Republished here today to mark Prof. Wole Soyinka’s 86th birthday.

Posted by Deji Yesufu

One Comment

  1. […] a dream come true and hope that when my grandchildren ask me about this great literary giant, the man I once argued is the most accomplished Nigerian that ever lived, I would be able to tell them about yesterday, 9th December, 2020 – the day I met Prof. Wole […]


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