Enkiteng Hermeneutics: Reading the Bible with Maasai Christians

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.)

Enkiteng Hermeneutics:
Reading the Bible with Maasai Christians

by Joshua Robert Barron
May 2021

Introduction
…..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.

Enkiteng Hermeneutics?
…..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).

Conclusion
…..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).

……………………….
BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

Does culture matter?

[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:

  1. When we theologize, does culture matter?
  2. If culture matters, what its appropriate role and function?
  3. 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?

La culture est-elle importante ?

[For francophone friends and colleagues; this is something which I shared in Théologie Contextuelle en Afrique, a forum for pastors and theological educators (bible colleges and seminaries) in francophone Africa which I help administer.  The version here has been lightly edited to be more generally applicable.  I apologize in advance for any bad grammar or other errors in what I have written!  For an English version, see my “Does culture matter?” post.]

La culture est-elle importante ? Plus précisément, je veux discuter du rôle important que joue la culture dans nos formulations théologiques. Dans ce groupe, nous savons que la culture compte, mais la question reste de savoir comment la culture compte. Quel est le rôle approprié de la culture dans notre théologie ?

Je suis historien. Au sein de la tradition chrétienne, je vois que la culture et la langue — notamment le grec, le syriaque, le latin, le copte, l’arménien, le géorgien, le guèze (ou le vieil éthiopien) pendant l’ère patristique — ont influencé les articulations théologiques. Ou, comme j’aime cuisiner dans la cuisine et que mes amis me considèrent même comme un chef, je pourrais dire que la culture confère une certaine saveur ou un certain arôme à la façon dont nous « faisons » la théologie.

Veuillez noter que je n’appelle pas au relativisme théologique. Mais j’affirme que nous ne devrions pas absolutiser les articulations théologiques précédentes spécifiques à la culture — les expressions théologiques occidentales ont beaucoup à offrir au christianisme mondial et ne doivent pas être écartées. Mais ils ne doivent pas non plus être absolutisés.

Plus récemment, je peux voir des différences entre le christianisme anglophone d’Angleterre ou d’Amérique et le christianisme francophone de France ou de Belgique — bien que le christianisme anglophone et francophone soient certainement comme des frères dans le contexte du christianisme occidental. Cependant, lorsque nous passons à des cultures non européennes (et je considère que les cultures d’Amérique du Nord sont principalement européennes, ou, si vous préférez, euro-américaines), il est possible de voir de plus grandes différences dans l’expression chrétienne. Naturellement, lorsque nous entrons dans les théologies vernaculaires — penser dans les langues d’Afrique ou d’Asie au lieu d’insister sur des formes francophones, anglophones ou lusophones — ces différences s’accentuent, tout comme les formulations théologiques guèze et syriaque semblent assez différentes de la théologie théologique francophone. formulations du christianisme occidental auxquelles nous sommes habitués !

Différentes cultures posent des questions différentes. Les réponses données par de brillants théologiens il y a mille ans, ou il y a cinq cents ans, en France, en Angleterre ou en Allemagne pourraient ne pas être pertinentes pour nos contextes africains, simplement parce qu’ici, dans les divers pays d’Afrique, nous posons différentes questions auxquelles théologie chrétienne occidentale traditionnelle n’a tout simplement pas de réponses.

Veuillez me pardonner si mon discours a été trop long, mais je suis enseignant ! et permettez-moi de reformuler ma question :

  1. Lorsque nous théologisons, la culture importe-t-elle ?
  2. Si la culture est importante, quel est son rôle et sa fonction appropriés ?
  3. Spécifiquement dans le cadre des réalités contextuelles africaines dans lesquelles la plupart des membres du groupe vivent et travaillent, quel est le rôle et la fonction appropriés de la culture africaine dans notre théologie (chrétienne) ?

C’est ma conviction que les chrétiens africains ne sont pas seulement authentiquement chrétiens mais peuvent aussi être authentiquement africains.

musings on family history

I love history. Also family history.

If you look at our family pictures, is pretty obvious that we don’t have that much genetic diversity. But we have a little.

I have some slight Cherokee heritage. It’s only 1/64th, so our children are a mere 1/128th, not much at all. But it is still worth noting and celebrating.

One of my great-great-great-great-grandmothers was Cherokee. According to family lore she married a French fellow who had fled France for reasons of health — either because of his Huguenot faith or, if he fled during the French Revolution, because his family belonged to the lesser nobility; I forget when in the 1700s he came over. I wish I knew the story about how they met.

I do know he was a Huguenot (a French Protestant). The Huguenots often faced persecution, and sometimes massacre, in Roman Catholic France. I also know that his family claimed to be descended from Charlemagne. That claim may well have been mere pretension, but it wouldn’t have made the family popular during the Reign of Terror. So I’m also at least 1/64th French.

One of their children married one of my Scots-Irish ancestors; they were my great-great-great-grandparents. Once we get to the grandchildren of the Cherokee and French couple I start to know more family history.

So my great-great-grandfather William Robert McCracken (he went by “W.R.”) was a quarter Cherokee. He was early a part of the Restoration Movement in the 1800s. A farmer in Indiana, he gave a section of his land to the Monrovia Christian Church when they were sufficiently organized to want a building. The building on that plot now houses a Methodist congregation; at some point before my birth the Monrovia CC grew out of their space, and another farmer just outside of the village gave them land to build a larger structure.

The Restoration Movement — which resulted in today’s Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ — was born out of the Second Great Awakening. Its three most famous early leaders were Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell, and Alexander Campbell.

Interestingly, Barton Stone was fluent in the Cherokee language and would often preach in that language. (I’ve read that he knew five different Native American languages, but cannot provide citations for that. There are extant manuscripts of Stone’s sermons in Cherokee, though written phonetically in Latin script. Stone was preaching in Cherokee before Sequoyah’s newly devised Cherokee script was adopted.) It’s statistically unlikely that WR (who may not have spoken the language), his parents, or his Cherokee grandmother heard Barton Stone preach in the Cherokee language. But it’s still an interesting connection.

Barton Stone was the minister of the Cane Ridge church in Kentucky during the Cane Ridge Revival, which was part of the Second Great Awakening. An early opponent of slavery who manumitted the two slaves he had inherited, he reflected that “This revival cut the bonds of many poor slaves!” At Cane Ridge and other churches influenced by Stone at this period, there was no distinction based on skin color or ethnicity. Those of African heritage were listed on membership roles alongside those of European heritage — a novelty at that point in American history.

I don’t know whether my great-great-grandfather ever met Stone or the Campbells. But I do know that he shared Stone’s views on the abhorrent evils of slavery. In the 1860s, he joined a regiment from Indiana. One of his motivations was the abolition of slavery. He was willing to fight, and perhaps to die, to “declare freedom to the captives.” He served with distinction as a second lieutenant and the aide de camp to General Benjamin Harrison, who later served as America’s 23rd President.

WR was not a warmonger, however. He had seen the horrors of war first hand. Many years later his son, my great-grandfather Benjamin Harrison McCracken, was eager to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders to go to Cuba to drive the Spanish out of the New World and liberate the Cubans. WR put his foot down. You think that war is all romance (using that term in the 19th century sense of “adventure”) and glory, but you haven’t seen what I’ve seen. War is hell, and I don’t want any son of mine to see what I’ve seen. Perhaps he was also thinking that he didn’t want any son of his to do what he had done? I don’t know — to my knowledge, that’s the closest he ever got to speaking of his war experiences. My family still has his service revolver … I wonder what stories it could tell? I wonder if I would want to hear them … . Regardless, Benjamin did not go to war in Cuba.

I know a funny story about great-grandpa Ben and a corny joke from the 1800s. He married later in life than was then common. When he started courting Miss Minnie Cain, they would promenade up and down the street of their small town as they conversed. His friends guffawed, “Lookie there at ole Ben. He’s so old, he’s awalking with a Cain!” <cue laugh track>

My mother has a letter that WR wrote to his son Benjamin. Apparently a later than average courtship and marriage weren’t the only way he was a bit slow to “settle down.” He had at that point only toyed with the Christian faith. He knew the good news about Jesus is true, but he hadn’t settled down and made a commitment. It’s about time for you to man-up, son, and make a decision. (Well, maybe that’s how he would’ve written today. Over a century ago, his language was a little different.) At least twice, Benjamin listened to his father. He didn’t go to war with Roosevelt, and sometime after reception of this letter, he did accept Jesus as Lord. He was baptized and followed Jesus until his death. The letter must have made a difference, for he kept it and my grandma (his daughter) kept it after him.  Sometime around 1918–1919, Ben & Minnie moved back to Monrovia, Indiana.  As members of Hazelwood Christian Church, Ben taught an adult sunday school class for years.  My mom has both WR’s letter to Benjamin (her grandfather) and the bible from which Benjamin taught.

Can a girl grow up to be a theologian?

Of course! Those who think otherwise are either confused about the nature of theology or are just wrong.

On definitions of theology:

“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.
And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

— Evagrius of Pontus (345–399), “On Prayer,” The Philokalia, vol. 1.

 For our Greek-nerd friends, here’s the original:
 «Εἰ θεολόγος εἶ, προσεύξῃ ἀληθῶς, καὶ εἰ άληθῶς προσεύξῃ, θεολόγος εἶ.»

 — Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός

Thus, a theologian (théologien OR théologienne,* equally), is one who, having spoken well with God, is enabled to speak well — and teach well — about God and the things of God.

A theologian is not merely someone with facility in articulating academic jargon.

Today’s théologiennes are part of a vast cloud of witnesses. Here are a some of my favorites (mostly arranged chronologically).

  • Mary the First Evangelist and the Apostle to the Apostles (NT period)
  • Phillip the Evangelist’s four preaching daughters (NT period)
  • Junia the Apostle (NT period)
  • Priscilla the teacher of the apostle Apollos (NT period)
  • Lois the teacher (and grandmother) of the apostle Timothy (NT period)
  • Eunice the teacher (and mother) of the apostle Timothy (NT period)
  • Perpetua (martyred 203; Carthage)
  • Felicity (martyred 203; Carthage)
  • Macrina the Elder (before 270 – c. 340; Cappadocia)
  • Macrina the Younger (c. 330 – 379; Cappadocia and Pontus)
  • Nina the Equal to the Apostles and the Enlightener of Georgia (aka Nino; c. 296 – c. 338 or 340; Cappadocia and Georgia)
  • Marcella (325–410; Rome)
  • Melania the Elder (c. 350 – either before 410 or c. 417; Spain, Rome, Jerusalem)
  • Melania the Younger (c. 383 – 439; Rome, Jerusalem)
  • Paula of Rome (347 – 404; Rome, Bethlehem)
  • Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179; Germany)
  • Hadewijch of Antwerp (1200s; The Netherlands)
  • Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1260 – c. 1282/94; Germany)
  • Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1423; England)
  • Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380; Italy)
  • Catherine of Genoa (1447 – 1510; Italy)
  • Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582; Spain)
  • Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati (usually just known as “Pandita Ramabai”; 1858 – 922; India)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957; England)
  • Mercy Amba Oduyoye (b. 1934; Ghana)
  • Marianne Katoppo (943 – 2007; Indonesia)
  • Gillian M. Bediako (living; Ghana)
  • Philomena Njeri Mwaura (living; Kenya)
  • Dana L. Robert (living; America)
  • Musa Dube (aka Musa Wenkosi Dube Shomanah, b. 1964; Botswana)
  • Lynn H. Cohick (living; America)
  • Michelle Lee-Barnewall (living; America)
  • Wanjiru M Gitau (living; Kenya)
  • Cynthia Long Westfall (living; America)

And of course this list would not be complete without the inclusion my very favorite théologienne:

  • Ruth Barron (living; America and Kenya)

The discerning reader will note that this is list is quite short with large gaps, both chronologically and geographically. I attribute that to the limitations of my own education. Also note that this is a list of favorites, not an exhaustive list of all whom I’ve read. Note that Macrina the Elder and Macrina the Younger were responsible for discipling two the other three “Great Cappadocians” — Macrina the Younger’s younger brothers Basil the Great (of Cappadocian Caesarea) and Gregory of Nyssa; she also played an important role in the formation of Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzen. Historically speaking, those three men were largely responsible for the survival of Nicene Orthodoxy. But the Nicene Orthodoxy of those three men is due to those two women, the two Macrinas. (Moreover, those godly men recognized publicly that they owed their very faith to the teaching of those two women.) Also of special note is Nina, to whom the ancient Church really did bestow two lofty titles: “Equal to the Apostles” and “Enlightener of Georgia.” She was nearly singlehandedly responsible for the conversion of an entire country.

As Mercy Amba Oduyoye has explained, using an Akan proverb, “a bird has two wings.” A bird with one wing is necessarily grounded. A bird with only one strong wing may well fly in circles. If the Church is to soar, she most exercise both wings equally — she must give voice (and ear) to both men and women.

* In French, “theologian” is translated as either théologien (masculine) or théologienne (feminine); the language (and ancient Christian tradition) recognize that theologians — including teaching theologians — may be either male or female.

…………………………

This post is dedicated to AlitzahHannahgailEliana, Ahaviah, and Shalviah.

What is “theology”?

As a missionary- and theological educator, I (Joshua) spend a lot of time in my study.  Today I  am spending some time with Prof. E. Bôlaji Idowu (1913-1993, Nigeria 🇳🇬). I was delighted to find this gem:

… a theologian who thinks that he is an intellectualist is only wasting his time. A theologian who is worthy of the name is first and foremost a man of prayer, waiting upon God for a message, God’s own message.

— E. Bôlaji Idowu, God, chapter 1 in Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs, 17-29, ed. Kwesi A. Dickson and Paul Ellingworth (Lutterworth Press / United Society for Christian Literature, 1969), p. 23.

I want to note this assertion, with which I agree:

A theologian who is worthy of the name

is first and foremost a man or woman of prayer.

As a historian, I am immediately struck by how much this echoes one of my favorite patristic quotations, Evagrios of Pontus defining what a theology is and what a theologian is.  But I’ve written about that elsewhere.
So let me ask us:  are we people of prayer?

book review: Forgiveness and Justice

Forgiveness and Justice are incompatible, right?  Forgiving someone means foregoing justice, doesn’t it?  Isn’t it just cognitively impossible to think of pursuing justice and forgiving at the same time?  That’s how the popular thinking goes … but that’s not biblical thinking at all.
 
Lamentation (and even anger) at injustice, the seeking of justice, and the practice of forgiveness are all closely intertwined.  W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) included in his book Souls of Black Folk a chapter entitled “Songs of Sorrow.”  In one place he astutely notes that such songs of sorrow (such as the “Negro Spirituals”) offer hope, “a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”
 
Bryan Maier has written an excellent study that explores this relationship between lament for wrongs suffered and hope for justice.  We can’t over-recommend his Forgiveness and Justice:  A Christian Approach (2017).  At just 160 pages, it’s a fairly quick read.
 
There’s nearly a cottage industry of books on forgiveness.  Most contemporary teachings on forgiveness follow one of five models (though there are others) —
  • therapeutic forgiveness (the victim should forgive for the sake of the victim’s well-being, the state of unforgiveness only causes further injury to the victim, and may cause the victim to risk damnation),
  • forensic forgiveness (forgiveness as a transaction — the cancelling of debt, granting clemency from deserved punishment),
  • relational forgiveness (transactional forgiveness plus possible reconciliation of a ruptured relationship),
  • unilateral forgiveness (forgiveness is a one-sided action, all on the side of the victim, and it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator repents), or
  • dispositional forgiveness (having a forgiving or conciliatory spirit).
All of these have some merit but tend to either try to say too much or too little.
Offering an alternative (and more robustly biblical) course, Maier lays out three boundaries delimiting forgiveness.
  • “Boundary #1: Forgiveness Is a Response to a Moral Violation”
    • “Forgiveness, in order to make sense, must presuppose that an offense has been committed; otherwise there would be nothing to forgive.”  Forgiveness is only required when there has been a moral violation, an offense that is inherently unrighteous/unjust.
  • “Boundary #2: Forgiveness Is Not a Cognitive Reframe”
    • This cognitive behaviorism may have its place, within appropriate limits, to offer a fresh perspective — life has handed me a bunch of lemons?  No problem, I’ll just make lemonade!  Clearly, perception does shape behavior.  Changing our perception can help us not to get stuck in resentment.
    • But forgiveness is something different.  Defining forgiveness in this way can blur the lines of reality, foster gaslighting, and confuse such concepts as
      • condoning, excusing, justifying, and showing mercy.
    •  Often cognitive reframing can ultimately call evil, good — see, God can bring good out of that situation, so what happened to you was really good after all!, and you should praise God for this abuse!  (NB:  We — Joshua and Ruth — have both, separately, heard this type of thing many times over the years.)
    • As a result, this type of focus ultimately makes victims more vulnerable to future acts of injustice and harm.
  • “Boundary #3: Forgiveness Is More Than Empathy”
    • Maier notes that “many forgiveness authors suggest some kind of empathy with the perpetrator as a means of ameliorating the resentment” which a victim feels as a result of the moral violation he or she suffered.  Of course we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  But we must also recognize that “that if the victim’s sin cancels out the sin of the perpetrator, then the whole basis for justice collapses. If we are always guilty in some kind of morally equivalent way, then we can never charge our offenders.  If a victim must be totally free of any sinful behaviors or thoughts before the offender can be addressed, justice would never occur.  In the classic passage on confronting a brother (Matt. 18:15–20), the victim’s sin (which we know is present from the rest of Scripture) is never mentioned.”
Maier then outlines “four contours of a Christian approach to forgiveness,” asking a series of questions that we must answer to reach a biblical definition of forgiveness on the foundation of the three boundaries listed above.
  • “How does God forgive?”
  • “How does healing relate to forgiveness?”
  • “Is forgiveness primarily self-centered or other-centered?”
  • “Is forgiveness active or passive?”
After examining (in chapter 3) the relationship between resentment and repentance, he explores each of those four questions.  Reminiscent of Bonhoeffer’s discussion of “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship, Maier explains the hidden costs of the “cheap forgiveness” that many in the Church insist upon.  With cheap forgiveness, because the offender has neither confessed nor repented, “there is no agreement that what was done was wrong” and the victim remains unsafe, and true reconciliation is impossible.  It is appropriate to address ongoing resentment harbored by a victim once the offender has confessed and demonstrated signs of repentance, including where necessary some type of restitution to restore justice.  And so, because “trust is the basis of true unilateral healing for victims,” if such “resentment poses a barrier to genuine forgiveness,” this should be dealt with.  But often “resentment is merely an appropriate emotional reaction to sin yet to be addressed.”  In such circumstances, “healing can only come by means of some assurance that one day justice will be complete and final.”  This is not a desire for revenge and vengeance borne out of bitterness and rancorous resentment, but a godly and natural desire for justice and righteousness.
 
Our scholar friends will recall that both the Old Testament Hebrew root צדק (tz-d-q) and the New Testament Greek rootδικ (-dik-) are inclusive of our English ideas of “righteousness” and “justice.”  There is no justice in the midst of unrighteousness, and no righteousness in injustice.
 
Of course, it is worth mentioning that it was after Israel named their daughters “Miriam”, or themselves “Mara” — names that mean “bitter” or “bitterness” — that God sent savior-redeemers (Moses, Boaz, and ultimately Jesus).  God in God’s wisdom acted salvifically after God’s people recognized their bitter lot.
 
Maier has chapters on “authentic repentance”, “trusting God for justice”, “results of forgiveness”, and “forgiveness and justice in counseling.”  Here is his exposition of what the simple statement “I forgive you” should mean:
Because of your repentance and the facts that the price for your sin has been paid (by God), the effects of your sin against me have been substantially healed, and your repentance has stopped the previously hostile messages to me, your sin can no longer damage me. Since you are taking responsibility for your sin, I no longer have to make up distorted reasons why it happened, and that is good for both of us. Finally, our relationship is now different and I agree to treat you in light of this new relationship.
 
We (Ruth and Joshua) recommend this book — Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach — to any pastor, preacher, counselor, or missionary in any context.  It’s practical, theologically robust but in everyday language, and firmly grounded in Scripture.
 
For that matter, we recommend it to anyone
  • who struggles with forgiveness,
  • who struggles with justice,
  • who is passionate about justice, or
  • or who is passionate about forgiveness.
We guess that covers most of us.
 
 
 
Note:  We have this book in paper and in Kindle (it’s also available for Nook).  We didn’t include page numbers as I (Joshua) was referring for the quotes to the digital copy, which sadly doesn’t include “real” page numbers.  Bryan Maier’s Forgiveness and Justice is available from Christian Book Distributors, Joseph Beth, BooksAMillion, Barnes & Noble, or wherever fine books are sold.
 
 
 

love and action

Proverbs are delightful. They offer a window into a culture.  I especially enjoy pairs of proverbs which seem contradictory. One of my favorite pairs is found in Proverbs 26.4-5.  I’ll quote in Hebrew for our nerdy friends (and because Hebrew fonts just look cool) and in English.
 
אַל־תַּ֣עַן כְּ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּֽן־תִּשְׁוֶה־לּ֥וֹ גַם־אָֽתָּה׃
עֲנֵ֣ה כְ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּן־יִהְיֶ֖ה חָכָ֣ם בְּעֵינָֽיו׃
 
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
lest you yourself also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own estimation. (NET)
 
 
A few months ago, I learned a similar pair of proverbs in Maa:
Ebaiki ninyor, nimiret.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.
.
For those interested in such things, here’s the IPA phonetic pronunciation:
Ɛbáɨ́kɨ nɨ́nyɔ̄r, nímīrēt.
Mɛbáɨ́kɨ nɨ́nyɔ̄r, nímīrēt.
.
Perhaps you love him/her, yet you don’t help him/her.
It cannot happen that you love him/her and you don’t help him/her.
.
(My list of Maa pronouns includes over 200. This, of course, does not count the innumerable constructions which are possible through the use of pronominal prefixes and infixes. But Maa doesn’t distinguish between he/she/it — “ninye” does triple duty.  In these proverbs, ninye isn’t used.  Instead, pronominal prefixes/infixes indicate both subject and object.)
.
The initial verb in each of these proverbs is interesting; ɛbáɨ́kɨ / ebaiki is literally “it is reached” or “it is arrived at.” Idiomatically it is “maybe” or “perhaps”. The pronominal 3rd person prefix ɛ- is replaced with mɛ- in the second one. Depending on tone, this is either negative or subjunctive; here it is negative. Thus ɛbáɨ́kɨ / ebaiki introduces something that is conceivably possible whereas mɛbáɨ́kɨ / mebaiki indicates that what follows is inconceivable and impossible.
.
Ebaiki ninyor, nimiret. Perhaps you love him/her, yet you don’t help him/her.
.
Within human relationships, it is quite imaginable that we profess love for someone and yet there is no actual demonstration of love.  We say “we love you” but don’t help the supposed beloved, and in fact we often harm instead (whether by sin of commission or sin of omission).
.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.  It cannot happen that you love him/her and you don’t help him/her.
.
Thus our actions (or inactions) will belie our words.  “The proof is in the pudding,” as the old English proverb states.
.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”
Show me your faith without works
and I will show you faith by my works.”

(James 2.18, NET)
.
Love does no harm to its neighbor.
Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
(Romans 13.10 NIV-1984)
.
If we claim to love while either actively harming or simply refusing to assist, our actions prove that we do not, in fact love.
.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.  It is not possible to love in merely word or sentiment.  Love helps those who are loved.
.
Beloved, let us love one another.
(1 John 4.7)
.
.

Lenana’s Oreteti

Lenana was a well-known Laibon (oloiboni, “ritual expert”) of the Maasai, b. sometime between 1860 and 1870 (he was circumcised in 1882, perhaps at the age of nineteen? … traditionally, Maasai did not keep track of their birthdates, but only of when they were circumcized) and dying in 1911.  The name Lenana means “of the gentleness.”  An important Maasai leader during the colonialization of East Africa by Great Britain, he is better known among the Maasai themselves by the other form of his name, Olonana (“he of gentleness”).

Lenana is a fairly common Maasai boy’s name. I’ve not heard (though I don’t know everything) of anyone else named Ololana, though.

The term, as an adjective, is a term of endearment —
Li alashe lai lenana is “O my brother of tenderness
Lo ltau lai lelana is “O my heart of tenderness, the dynamic equivalent of “Sweetheart in English.  I (Joshua) often address Ruth with the short form, lo ltau lai (O my heart!).

I probably hear the adjective more often than the name.  For “sweetheart” more literally, you could say oltau lemelok (or lo ltau lemelok in the vocative).

The feminine equivalent of lenana (pronounced, by the way, like LAY-NAH-NAH, for English-speakers) is nanana.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard it, though.  Namelok ([feminine thing or person] which-is-sweet) is more common as an adjective for females.

It is said that upon his death, Olonana’s corpse was secretly moved from his homestead (enkang) in Kiserian to this site, where his body was accorded the rare privilege of burial, marked by planting an oreteti sapling. (Historically, corpses were laid out on the ground and hyenas come to eat the body at night.  Burial is a rare salutatory honor in traditional Maa culture.) The oreteti is a sacred tree of ceremonial significance in Maasai culture. Oreteti trees are places of sanctuary and holiness.

Oreteti refers to fig trees:  ficus natalensis, ficus sycomorus, ficus gnaphalocarpa, ficus mucosa.  It is one of four types of trees considered sacred or holy by the Maasai.  Note the smooth green leaves (even in the dry season), and also that there are no thorns.

Lenana’s Oreteti:
(click pictures for a larger images)

This oreteti tree is now nearly 110 years old, and is an important landmark — geographically and culturally. The Oreteti AIC (Africa Inland Church) congregation has its building a short walk down the mountain from here, taking its name from this tree.

(Photos taken on 1 October 2019.  I was meeting with Benson ole Kurraru, the pastor of Oreteti AIC.  He also oversees AIC church planting and ministerial training in the Olalaiser area of Kajiado county.)