African theology’s window of opportunity

Like the theology of the early church fathers, genuine African (Christian) theological reflection arises out of the dialog between cultural ways of thinking and the Biblical story. African theologians today have a unique opportunity to enrich Christian theology in many of the same ways that the early church fathers did by authentically engaging and translating the gospel into new cultural frameworks (Kwame Bediako—Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Regnum, 1992). During the era of independence, there seemed to be an explosion of energy for African theologies, but current efforts seem not to be getting the attention they could be.

Unfortunately, this unique window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

The very old African Christians who understand and appreciate their traditional cultures are dying off. Many of of the youngsters today either don’t know or don’t appreciate their traditional cultures. In some parts of Africa, it is already almost too late. Where we find third and fourth generation Christians, believers tend to be more conservative and Western in their Christianity—they grew up in schools of older missionary thought that condemned almost every component of the traditional cultures. The younger generation, which could be more open to incorporating African cultural values into their theology, has become so thoroughly secularized or westernized that most of them never learned their own traditions—some don’t even speak the mother tongues of their parents. There are still some older Africans who are in touch with their traditional roots and we should take advantage of their presence while we can. Some of these elders have thought deeply about how the Gospel speaks—or could have spoken—in ways that resonated better with the African worldview. (Some of their analysis has been generated by watching Westerners do inculturation of the Gospel badly.)

The sobering conclusion is that we may have a narrow window of opportunity within which to take advantage of some of the rich African cultural heritages to enrich global theology before the chance slips away forever (in some places 20-30 years before this older generation dies with their rich cultural knowledge). African theologians will continue to gain prominence, and the legacy of older traditions will always endure is many respects, but maybe not with the richness with which they are lived, understood, and remembered today.

The realization that certain theological insights from African cultures were slipping away hit me two years ago when I was interviewing a seventy-year-old Christian couple on the shores of Lake Victoria about eschatology. This couple clearly loved Jesus, loved the church, and had some incredibly rich reflections on how the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and power over death could have meaningfully transformed Luo burial rituals (while maintaining some of the core elements). The church of Western modernity had tried to scrap every aspect of the cultural practices wholesale. As this elderly couple talked, their fifty-year-old son entered the room. He was already a generation too late, and wasn’t aware of half of the things they were telling me; these things simply weren’t a part of his world of experience. That day, I left with an fuller understanding of the hope of the resurrection. I also left with a sense of urgency—that our generation might be missing out on an incredibly wonderful ideas.

During a PhD seminar here, a recognized scholar of the Pentateuch was talking about Leviticus and casually asked for some experiences with sacrifice from the various African cultures represented in the room. As the stories started flowing, he had to ask for pen and paper so he could take notes. It was clear to him that these students had a lot more first-hand information about ritual and sacrifice generally than he had been able to uncover in his extensive library research.

When we finally grasp the potential contributions of African cultures to theological reflection, will it be too little too late?

Coming up:  Institutional barriers to doing genuine African theology and quotes from African theologians.

Note: I had been saving this topic for a time when I could give it some extra attention, but some of my friends have urged me to post it “as is” in hopes that others (from my very limited sphere of influence) might help encourage the conversation.

THE key to interpreting the Old Testament (Enns)

Peter Enns, “Hey, Get Away from My Bible!“ Christian Appropriation of a Jewish Bible:

. . . What drove the first Christians to do what they did with the OT was their experience of the crucified and risen Son of God.

The first Christians handled their Bible in a way that helped them make sense of this astounding series of events surrounding the first Easter. This is important to understand. The foundation for what they did with the OT was what happened in Palestine in the opening decades of (what we call) the 1st century. In view of the climactic and incontestable event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians were now pouring over their own Bible to understand how this new event could be understood in light of Israel’s ancient text, and, conversely, how Israel’s ancient text is now to be understood in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The question of biblical interpretation revolved around the resurrection of Christ. The complex, intricate, sometimes gripping, sometimes puzzling way in which the NT writers handled their Bible is anchored in the fundamental Christian conviction that Jesus is the gracious, amazing conclusion to Israel’s story.

It is very important to remember here that the first Christians were not blond haired Europeans, . . .

. . .  By the time we get to Jesus and the NT writers, Jews had already had a pretty long history of asking themselves, “In view of these dramatically changing circumstances, how do we connect to our own ancient texts?” To put the matter more pointedly, “How are we now the people of God, in view of all that has happened? Indeed, are we still the people of God? What does that even mean?”

It was the pressure of aligning Israel’s ancient past with present changing circumstances that lead Second Temple Jews to do some pretty innovative “appropriation” of their own Bible, . . .

The first Christians were also Jews and they were engaged in another attempt at Jewish appropriation—although of a VERY different sort—since now one’s true identity as the people of God is centered not on what had been Israel’s defining markers, such as Torah, land, temple, and king, but in Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to bring all of these things, and more, to their proper focal point. . .

. . . “We handle the Bible the way we do because Jesus is raised from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection does not depend on how the first Christians handled the Bible. They handled the Bible the way they did because of Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible is to be trusted because Jesus is raised from the dead.”

. . . This ancient choice is still operative today. Is Jesus raised from the dead or isn’t he? And if so, so what? These are the questions that the NT writers went to great lengths to discuss in the NT letters, especially Paul’s letters. How one answers that question will affect how one looks at any other. . . .

. . . But, the rule of the resurrected Messiah creates all sorts of cognitive dissonance for modern people—as it did for ancient people—the interpretive question being only one of them.

This leads to a final, and perhaps even more counterintuitive, observation. The ultimate demonstration of the persuasiveness of the Christ-centered climax to Israel’s story may be much more than a matter of how Christians interpret their Bible. It may be in how those who claim to follow the risen Christ embody his resurrection in what they say, think, and do—but that is a whole other area of discussion.

Ok, I’ve already quoted way too much; read Enns’s whole post here. It’s worth chewing on for while.