March is the month of the unexpected: basketball upsets destroy your bracket, the weather can be crazy, or your schedule can be thrown into upheaval. I’ve gotten a visa for Ethiopia (for a scheduled ministry trip in April) that I won’t be able to use. And this time last week we had no immediate plans to visit the States but now in less than 48 hours we’ll be boarding a plane to do just that. To learn the details, read our March Madness newsletter.
“I did and continue to agree with [your former supervisor’s] and the Field Team’s decision” — (it is worh noting that a number of the field team had told us privately that they disagreed with the decision) —“I did and continue to agree with [his] diagnosis”.
“At that time, I would have only cleared you to continue on with [***] in a Leave of Absence to take the extended time needed to be healthy (which was a concession), but there is no way I would have cleared your family as healthy for return to the field.”
West African Christians in the 1200s and 1300s?
Yes. Did you not know?
I heard the magistrate Fakhr al-Din, Inspector of the victorious army, say: “I asked the king of the Takrur (ʾāl-Takrwur): ‘What is the source like where the gold grows among them?’ Then he said: ‘It is not in our land which is the property of the Muslims; rather, it is in the land that is the property of the Christians of Takrur (ʾāl-Naṣʾārīy min ʾāl-Takrwur). We send to take from them a collection that is due to us and is required of them. These are special lands that produce gold in this way: they are small pieces of various textures, some are like small rings, some are like carob seeds, and so on.’” The magistrate Fakhr al-Din replied, saying: ‘Why don’t you conquer the land by force?’ He said: ‘If we conquer them and take it, it does not produce anything. We have done this in various ways, but we have not seen anything in it. But when it returns to them, it produces according to its average. This is a fascinating dynamic, and this is perhaps an increase in the dominance (ṭuğīyʾān) of the Christians.’”
— Ibn al-Dawādārī, Kanz al-durar wa-jāmiʻ al-ghurar; translated by Professor Vince Bantu
I thank both Prof. Bantu for translating this and to my friend Van Harris for making the translation available to me. Prof. Bantu is currently working on the first-ever English translation of important Arabic language texts about Christianity in West Africa in this time period.
- Vince L. Bantu, A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity, Missiological Engagements (IVP Academic, 2020)
- Vince L. Bantu, ed., Gospel Haymanot: A Constructive Theology and Critical Reflection on African and Diasporic Christianity (UMI, 2020)
- Shaw, Mark and Wanjiru M. Gitau, The Kingdom of God in Africa: A History of African Christianity, revised and updated edition (Langham Global Library, 2020).
For more resources, check out my Histories of African Christianity bibliography. Members of the African Christian Theology group on Facebook can find an html version here; a PDF version is available on my (Joshua’s) academia.edu page here.
Ashʉ́r and Ashʉrakɨ́
ashʉ́r: “to take shelter from the rain.”
ashʉ́rakɨ́: “to go daringly out, not minding the rain.”
These words are just beautiful.
(Oh, in some contexts the latter is its own antonym, meaning “to take shelter under [something],” as one does during a heavy rain.) Language is so much fun.
This Giving Tuesday we’re going to do something that doesn’t come easy to us: ask for your partnership.
First we thank our financial support partners for their generosity and our prayer partners for their prayers. Without them, we couldn’t do what we do. But we’re currently operating on a shoestring, as they say, and it’s not sustainable.
Please give — join us as regular monthly partners or give a one-time contribution.
Back in August, I (Joshua) posted a more academic essay sharing some of the behind-the-scenes linguistic and cross-cultural research that is part of missionary life — Enkiteng Hermeneutics: Reading the Bible with Maasai Christians. Further development of that resulted in two different publications. I’d be pleased if you took a look:
- “An Enkiteng Hermeneutics—Reading (and Hearing!) the Bible with Maasai Christians: A review essay and proposal.” Global Missiology 18, no. 4 (October 2021): 2–16.
read as pdf here
read as html here
- “A Four-in-One Book Review: A Four-in-One Book Review: On the Bible and Intercultural Hermeneutics among the Maasai.” International Review of Mission 110, no. 2 (November 2021): 358–363.
read as pdf here
Some of my other research had also been published earlier this year. Take a look, tolle lege (“take and read”):
- “My God is enkAi: a reflection of vernacular theology.” Journal of Language, Culture, and Religion 2, vol. 1 (2021): 1–20.
a pdf of the entire issue is available here
- “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian.” Global Missiology 18, vol. 2 (April 2021): 11 pages.
read as pdf here
read as html here
These samples of our mission research aren’t as glamorous as sharing pictures of baptisms or of new church building dedications — but without this sort of foundational work, the glamor too often tends be temporary and shorn of lasting glory.
Andrew Finlay Walls, 12 April 1928 – 12 August 2021, has been within his lifetime the single most important figure in the study of World Christianity. His towering intellect was only matched by his deep humility and depth of faith. But for me, he was also simply … my favorite teacher. (Though there have been several close-seconds.) Hours spent at the feet of Andrew and his wife, Dr Ingrid Reneau Walls, were far too few, but treasured.
I highly recommend his books: The Missionary Movement in Christian History (1996); The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (2002); Crossing Cultural Frontiers (2017); and Culture and Conversion in World Christianity (forthcoming).
During the course of his career, Andrew Walls taught on all six inhabited continents, and held positions
- in the UK at the University of Bristol, the University of Cambridge, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh, and Liverpool Hope University;
- in Sierra Leone at Fourah Bay College;
- in Nigeria at the University of Nigeria (in Nsukka);
- in Ghana at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute for Theology, Mission and Culture (in Akropong);
- in Kenya at the Centre of World Christianity, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Africa International University;
- in the USA at Princeton Theological Seminary, Yale University, and Harvard University.
He was the founding editor of The Sierra Leone Bulletin of Religion and the Journal of Religion of Africa and established the journal Studies in World Christianity (though James P. Mackey was the founding editor). His legacy especially lives on at the Andrew F. Walls Centre for the Study of African and Asian Christianity at Liverpool Hope University, the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, the Akrofi-Christaller Institute in Ghana, the Centre for World Christianity at Africa International University in Nairobi, and through the continuation of the Yale-Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission.
I am one of the many former mentees and students (PhD in World Christianity program at Africa International University in Nairobi) of Prof. Andrew Walls. My own master’s thesis advisor, Frederick W. Norris (1941–2016), was already a well-established scholar who had served as president of the American Patristic Society before meeting Prof Andrew; the encounter changed his life and, consequently, mine, when my Prof. Fred introduced me to Walls’s writings. Had I immediately proceeded to doctoral work after completing my MDiv in 2001, no program other than Prof Andrew’s at Edinburgh would have done. Instead, after many years of field work in South Africa and then Kenya, during which I was privileged to meet him two or three times, I became his student at the Centre for World Christianity here in Nairobi. The two-week intensive PhD seminar which I took from him and his wife in March 2018 remains a vocational highlight, as well as the high-water mark of my formal education.
A number of worthwhile tributes of Andrew Walls and the breadth and depth of the impact of his life and work have been published:
- In 2007, Christianity Today published Tim Stafford’s essay, “Andrew Walls: Historian Ahead of His Time” in their February print edition (this was reposted online on 13 August 2021 and was on the free side of the paywall; it may or may not still be open access).
- Jeremy Weber, ed., “Remembering ‘Prof’ Andrew Walls, Founder of the Study of World Christianity,” 17 August 2021, Christianity Today’s online site (on the free side of the paywall). [disclosure: parts of this tribute, including the poem below — albeit without the stanza divisions, were included in this article]
- from the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh;
- from the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh;
- from the Overseas Ministry Study Center (OMSC) at Princeton;
- from Liverpool Hope University;
- and many others … .
This picture of Prof Andrew and Dr Ingrid is from the last face-to-face teaching engagement I had under Prof. Andrew, in September 2020, and the last time I spoke with him and his wife, Dr. Ingrid Reneau Walls — that is, the last encounter with Prof before the resurrections of the Last Day. OMCS (the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary) hosted a three-day seminar, “African Christianity in the Americas and in Africa,” presented by Prof. Andrew that month — all attendees participated via Zoom due to the pandemic. The Celtic-Coptic-Maasai cross hanging on the wall of their home (in the background of the picture) is a gift from Ruth and me, which I had presented to them when I last saw them face-to-face, in Nairobi in March 2018.
Because of Prof Andrew and Dr Ingrid’s deep involvement with the Akrofi-Christaller Insititute of Theology, Mission, and Culture (ACI) in Ghana, the ACI community was among the first to learn of Prof’s passing on August 12th; Dr. Ingrid had of course sent a text message almost immediately to Prof. Gillian Mary Bediako, and so those of us with connections to ACI were among the first to know. (The evening of the 12th was a rough day. Our 21st anniversary, I learned within the same half hour that my favorite aunt had just been buried, 8400 miles away, and that Prof. Andrew had just died.) A colleague of mine, Wakakuholesanga Chisola, a Zambian currently enrolled in the masters program at ACI, and I were up late chatting about this news the night of the 12th. He mentioned Prof’s great strength that always seemed stronger than the frailty of his age these last years, and concluded, “But even Baobabs fall.”
That helped me to articulate, the next day, the depth of my grief; I had been too sorrowful to sleep until well after 2 a.m. that night. So the poem which follows is my tribute to the best of teachers and mentors I have ever had (note that Mosi-oa-Tunya is the local indigenous African name of Victoria Falls). I thank Wakakuholesanga for the image of the baobab, and Ruth for helping me with a few lines when my articulation of my grief was stuck.
Here is something a little more academic than what I (Joshua) usually share here. But to teach in African contexts well, to properly train Maasai and Turkana church leaders (as well as church leaders from other ethno-cultural groups in Africa) to effectively fulfill their role in equipping the Church — making disciples of Africans in African contexts, baptizing them and teaching them to follow the Way of Jesus in all aspects of life — it is absolutely necessary to understand African cultures well. So here is reflection of some of the hard behind-the-scenes cross-cultural work in which we customarily engage.
(An earlier version of this was presented in an online PhD seminar, “TR 906 African Biblical and Theological Hermeneutics,” VID Specialized University, Stavanger, Norway, on 4 May 2021.)
Reading the Bible with Maasai Christians
by Joshua Robert Barron
…..We all read, or listen to, scripture through a hermeneutical lens. All such lenses are necessarily tinged by culture. No reading of Scripture is acultural (Ukpong 1995, 6) and “none of us has a neutral perspective on … the Bible” (Mburu 2019, 22). Some practitioners of historical-critical methods of biblical interpretation are convinced that they are just reading scripture with all culture cut away. They are, of course, gravely mistaken and confused by their own cultural myopia. A healthy hermeneutic will not only explain, insofar as this is possible, what the text meant to the original recipients in their cultural contexts but will also engage with the cultures of contemporary recipients. Just as “a Theologia Africana which will seek to interpret Christ to the African in such a way that he feels at home in the new faith” (Sawyerr 1971, 240) is necessary for a healthy African Church, so healthy African hermeneutics require “African biblical scholars [who are] wary of running away from their African selves or identities and relying heavily on Western paradigms” (Masenya and Ramantswana 2015, 2). Gerald West notes that
Interpreting the biblical text is never, in African biblical hermeneutics, an end in itself. Biblical interpretation is always about changing the African context. This is what links ordinary African biblical interpretation and African biblical scholarship, a common commitment to interpret for contextual transformation. (West 2018, 248)
In the specific context of the Maasai people of East Africa, “while there are certainly areas where Maasai culture can benefit from Christian transformation, a recovery of traditional Maasai cultural values through a theologically robust process of inculturation can strengthen the Maasai churches as well” (Barron 2019, 17). This process will necessarily require a contextual African (Maasai) hermeneutic.
Ordinary Reader Hermeneutics is Vernacular
…..It is increasingly recognized within the discipline of African Biblical Hermeneutics that “both scholarly readers and the ordinary readers [are] capable hermeneuts” (Kĩnyua 2011, 2; see also West 1999, Elness-Hanson 2017, Lyimo-Mbowe 2020, Nkesela 2020). Ordinary readers, of course, are those who are not part of the scholarly guild or who otherwise lack training in interpreting biblical texts. As someone who is a scholarly reader with a commitment to equipping ordinary readers, I must ask myself whether “our biblical scholarship is committed more to our (elitist) peers than to people on the grassroots” (Masenya 2016, 4). It is also apparent that ordinary readers are most at home when approaching the biblical text in their own vernacular. Kwame Bediako saliently reminds us that “Mother tongues and new idioms are crucial for gaining fresh insights into the doctrine of Christ” (Bediako 1998, 111) — this is true not just for Christology but for biblical interpretation generally. As a foreign missionary myself, I remember that access to vernacular bible translations necessarily results in African hermeneutical agency as well as placing foreign missionaries in a subordinate position to the local Christians (Sanneh 2009, 196; West 2018, 245) — I am a partner of ordinary Maasai readers, but I am not in charge.
…..After observing that “the Bible in African languages remains the most influential tool of rooting the Bible in African consciousness,” Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele) and Ramantswana go on to note “the limitations of foregrounding the Bible as written word within aural contexts” (2015, 5) of Africa. These twin realities loomed large for my wife and me when we moved in 2007 to “the bush” of Maasai Land in southern Kenya in order to assist the local churches with curriculum development. Our work must be grounded in the Maa translation of Scripture and must take account of the importance of orality in Maa culture. The first matter at hand, of course, was to learn the Maa language. But eventually we had to begin writing curricula! We had previously taught at a small bible institute in South Africa (2000–2001). We had seen that simply transplanting western ways of thinking and studying simply wasn’t working. Pastors could be trained to preach a good sermon in English, but they weren’t being equipped to exegete Scripture in their own vernacular. (Of course, we’ve also seen American seminary grads who could pontificate doctrine but who couldn’t connect with the ordinary readers in the pews of their churches.) So we were committed to finding a different way. First of all, we knew that Maasai church leaders needed to teach in the Maa language and as Maasai Christians instead of just reproducing a British style lecture. What would that look like?
…..We learned that traditionally, the Maasai teach and engage in character formation through storytelling, parables, drama, and proverbs — and never through a western style lecture! This, of course, is common across much of Africa. Kĩnyua, an Agĩkũyũ biblical scholar from Kenya, proposes that scholarly readers and ordinary readers alike should “engage the Bible through the language of the African theatre and storytelling” (2011, 322). Why, we wondered, weren’t we seeing that in the local Maasai congregations? Why were Maasai Christians instead trying to imitate foreign models? We set out at once to learn as many traditional Maasai stories and proverbs as we could and to learn traditional Maasai modes of communication. Effective communication had to be appropriately contextual for the culture. This brings us to enkiteng.
…..Enkiteng is the Maa word for “cow.” Traditionally, the Maasai are semi-nomadic herdsfolk, raising cows, sheep, and goats. Culturally, cows are the most important animal. To be wealthy means to have cows and children. The Maasai will see the wealthiest world leader who has neither cows nor children as impoverished. The plural of enkiteng is inkishu. Interestingly, the Maa word for “life” is enkishui. This points to the integral and intimate connection in the worldview of the Maasai between cows and flourishing human life.
…..So when we were asked to teach an “inductive bible study” course at a local Discipleship Training School (in 2008), we started with a parable about cows. Cows, of course, are ruminants — they chew the cud. They don’t just swallow chunks of food down without chewing. They chew it thoroughly before swallowing. Later, they regurgitate the grasses they have eaten and chew the cud a second time. In that way they can extract all the goodness out of the grass — this is something elephants, for example, cannot do, as even a casual comparison of cow and elephant dung will reveal. Likewise, a good shepherd — the most common Maasai word is olchekut (for men) or enchekut (for women); it refers to a shepherd of livestock generally, not just of sheep — knows the importance of pasture rotation. Only grazing in one spot is bad for the pasture and eventually bad for the cows as well. Instead, it is necessary to migrate to new pastures to allow the grass to recover at the former one. In the same way, Christians should intake Scripture as the cow intakes grass, taking time to “chew the cud.” Similarly, Christians should “graze” throughout the whole of Scripture, not just from their favorite Gospel or Epistle. I should mention that “eating” or “chewing” is a common idiom in Maa. Where Hebrew speaks of “cutting a covenant,” Maa speaks of “eating an oath.” Traditional greetings include elaborate exchanges of “eating the news.” When you want to catch up with someone, you will invite them, mainosa ilomon! (“let’s eat the news!”);* the word ainos is one of the verbs for eating; enkinosata refers to the act of eating. Thus we speak of enkinosata Ororei le Nkai, “eating the Word of God,” anaa enkiteng nanyaal ing’amura, “as the cow chews the cuds.” We have developed this more fully in Maa elsewhere (e.g, Barron and Barron 2008, 27–28 and 48–57).
[*footnote: The Maa phrases meaning “eating the news,” using the verbs ainos or anya, are usually translated as “chewing the news” in English, though anyaal is the proper term for “to chew;” this is probably due to the influence of the English idiom of “chewing the fat.”]
…..That first course on Enkinosata Ororei le Nkai was so well received and proved so helpful that we developed it into a full curriculum which went to press in December 2008. The full title translates to “Eating the Word of God: Comprehending the Holy Bible: How You Can Really Listen to the Word of God in the Bible so that you grasp its meaning.” We wrote it with the understanding that the majority of the Maasai congregants in rural congregations were illiterate, especially among the older generations. Sometimes the teacher or preacher might be the only literate person in the gathering. (In other words, we took the African contextual reality of the importance of orality quite seriously.) After an introductory “instructions for teachers” which explains how to use the following lessons and demonstrates the importance of communicating in a Maasai fashion, there are ten lessons (though most Maasai teachers will take more than ten sessions to teach the material). All of the lessons are parable based, using parables which arise naturally out of Maa culture — just as the parables of Jesus rose naturally out of his surrounding cultural context — and include the frequent use of enkiguran (“drama”). We give examples of how one may, as a Maasai, “chew the cud” of the biblical texts in order to direct Maa cultural questions to Scripture. The Enkinosata book has since been translated/adapted for kiSwahili and NgaTurkana.
…..Charles Nyamati (a Tanzanian biblical scholar) taught that “the Christian has something to learn from the traditional African; not in the sense of new doctrines, but in the sense of new insights and new ways of understanding God” (1977, 57); I would add “new insights and new ways of understanding Scripture.” As we worked on the Enkinosata project and as I have continued to develop in my other research and teaching what I have here called an enkiteng hermeneutic, I have tried to encourage Maasai believers “to embrace and celebrate the use” of their Maa language in their biblical interpretations and in their theologizing and “to make full use both of Maa culture and language” in intersection with the Scripture as they build up the Church of Christ in Maasailand (Barron 2021b, 15). I hope that as a professional reader I thus have been able to join Maasai indigenous and ordinary readers of Scripture as “partners in an ethical way of relating the biblical texts to the context” (Nkesela 2020, 10).
…..Like Masenya and Ramastwana, I am convinced that
required to abandon their African optic lenses. Rather, it is through such lenses that they are called upon to contribute to the global intercultural theological or biblical hermeneutics table as equal partners. (Masenya and Ramantswana 2015, 3)
Through this enkiteng hermeneutics — an intercultural Maasai African Biblical hermeneutics — Maa culture and the cultural sensibilities of the ordinary readers among the Maasai people are privileged. This “encounter between the Maasai and the Bible provides conceptual tools for strengthening not only [Maasai culture] but also African culture and identity more generally” (Nkesala 2020, 194), enabling Maasai Christians to translate “biblical truth into [the] vernacular categories and worldview” (Shaw 2010, 167) “of the broader Maa culture” (Barron 2021a, 5). Masenya and Ramantswana correctly assert that “the survival of African Biblical Hermeneutics depends on African biblical scholars digging more wells from which Africans will quench their thirst” (Masenya and Ramantswana 2015, 11). Through enkiteng hermeneutics, I have seen numerous such new wells flow with the enkare namelok (“sweet water”) of new insights for Maasai Christianity (for some examples of possibilities of such new wells, see Barron 2019 and Barron 2021b; time does not permit me to share more).
Barron, Joshua Robert. 2021a. “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian.” Global Missiology 18 (2): 12 pages.
NB: a PDF of the article is available at Global Missiology’s site.
Barron, Joshua Robert. 2021b. “My God is enkAi: A Reflection of Vernacular African Theology.” Journal of Language, Culture, and Religion 2 (1): 1–20.
NB: a PDF of the journal issue is available here.
Barron, Joshua Robert. 2019. “Lessons from Scripture for Maasai Christianity, Lessons from Maasai Culture for the Global Church.” Priscilla Papers 33 (2): 17–23.
NB: a PDF of the journal issue is available here.
Barron, Joshua [Robert] and Ruth Barron. 2008. Enkinosata Ororei Le Nkai: Enkibung’ata Bibilia Sinyati: Eninko Teninining Ororei le Nkai te Bibilia Nimbung Enkipirta enye: Inkiteng’enat Tomon. Nairobi: Community Christian Church.
Bediako, Kwame. 1998. “The Doctrine of Christ and the Significance of Vernacular Terminology.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 22 (3): 110–111.
Elness-Hanson, Beth E. 2017. Generational Curses in the Pentateuch: An American and Maasai Intercultural Analysis. Bible and Theology in Africa 24. Edited by Knut Holter. New York: Peter Lang.
Kĩnyua, Johnson Kĩriakũ. 2011. Introducing Ordinary African Readers’ Hermeneutics: A Case Study of the Agĩkũyũ Encounter with the Bible. Religions and Discourse 54. Edited by James M. M. Francis. Oxford: Peter Lang.
Liew, Tat-siong Benny, ed. 2018. Present and Future of Biblical Studies: Celebrating 25 Years of Brill’s Biblical Interpretation. Leiden, Brill.
Lyimo-Mbowe, Hoyce Jacob. 2020. Maasai Women and the Old Testament: Towards an Emancipatory Reading. Bible and Theology in Africa 29. Edited by Knut Holter. New York: Peter Lang.
Masenya (ngwan’a Mphahlele), Madipoane. 2016. “Ruminating on Justin S. Ukpong’s inculturation hermeneutics and its implications for the study of African Biblical Hermeneutics today.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 72 (1): Article # 3343, 6 pages.
Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele) and Hulisani Ramantswana. 2015. “Anything new under the sun of African Biblical Hermeneutics in South African Old Testament Scholarship?: Incarnation, death and resurrection of the Word in Africa.” Verbum et Ecclesia 36 (1): Article #1353, 12 pages.
Mburu, Elizabeth. 2019. African Hermeneutics. Carlisle, England and Bukuru, Nigeria: HippoBooks.
Nkesela, Zephania Shila. 2020. A Maasai Encounter with the Bible: Nomadic Lifestyle as a Hermeneutic Question. Bible and Theology in Africa 30. Edited by Knut Holter. New York: Peter Lang.
Parratt, John, ed. 1997. A Reader in African Christian Theology. 2nd edition. International Study Guide 23. London: SPCK.
Sanneh, Lamin. 2009. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. 2nd edition, revised and expanded. American Missiology Society 13. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2009.
Sawyerr, Harry. 1971. “What is African Christian Theology?” Africa Theological Journal 4: 7–24.
Shaw, Mark. 2010. Global Awakening: How 20th-Century Revivals Triggered a Christian Revolution. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic.
Sugirtharajah, R. S., ed. 1999. Vernacular Hermeneutics. The Bible and Postcolonialism 2. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.
Ukpong, Justin S. 1995. “Rereading the Bible with African Eyes: Inculturation and Hermenetuics.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 91 (3): 3–14.
West, Gerald O. 2018. “African Biblical Scholarship as Post-Colonial, Tri-Polar, and a Site- of-Struggle.” In Present and Future of Biblical Studies: Celebrating 25 Years of Brill’s Biblical Interpretation, edited by Tat-siong Benny Liew, 240–273. Leiden, Brill.
West, Gerald O. 1999. “Local is Lekker, but Ubuntu is Best: Indigenous Reading Resources from a South African Perspective.” In Vernacular Hermeneutics, edited by R. S. Sugirtharajah, 37–51. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.
[This is something I shared with African Christian Theology, a forum for pastors and theological educators (bible colleges and seminaries) in anglophone Africa which I administer; I have lightly edited it to make it more generally applicable. The original version was written in French for Théologie Contextuelle en Afrique, the sister group for francophone Africa; if interested see my post “La culture est-elle importante ?” from earlier today.]
Does culture matter? Specifically, I want to ask whether culture plays an important role in our theological formulations. As for me, I think culture does matter, but it remains a question as to how culture matters. What is the appropriate role, including limitations on that role, for culture in our theologizing?
Before I proceed, kindly note that I am not calling for theological relativism. But I am asserting that we should not absolutize previous culture-specific theological articulations — Western theological expressions have much to offer World Christianity and should not be discounted. But neither should they be absolutized.
I am a historian, as many of of our readers know. Within the Christian tradition, I see that both culture and language — notably Greek, Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ge’ez (or Old Ethiopic), and Nubian during the patristic era (i.e., the first 600–700 years of Christian history) — have influenced theological articulations. Or, as I enjoy preparing food in the kitchen, I might say that culture imparts a certain flavor or aroma to the way we “do theology.”
More recently, I can see distinctives between English-speaking Christianity of Scotland or America and French-speaking Christianity of France or Belgium — though both anglophone and francophone Christianity are certainly like twin sisters within the context of Western Christianity. When we move to non-European cultures, however, (and I consider the cultures of North America to be primarily European, or, if you like, Euro-American) it is possible to see greater differences in Christian expression. Naturally, when we move into vernacular theologies — thinking in the languages of Africa or of Asia instead of insisting on anglophone or francophone or lusophone theological forms — these differences are accentuated, much as Ge’ez and Syriac theological formulations sound rather different from the anglophone or latinate theological formulations of Western Christianity to which we are accustomed!
Different cultures ask different questions. The answers given by brilliant theologians a thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago, in England or France or Germany might not be pertinent to our African contexts, simply because here in Africa we are asking different questions to which traditional Western Christian theology simply has no answers.
Allow me to restate my question:
- When we theologize, does culture matter?
- If culture matters, what its appropriate role and function?
- Specifically within the setting of the African contextual realities, what is the appropriate role and function of African culture in our (Christian) theologizing, that is, in how we express the truth of the Gospel and its implications for how we live?