Saturday, July 28, 2007

Africa and the Bible

Father Greg Jones (of Anglican Centrist) has an essay at the Episcopal Cafe's Daily Episcopalian about Africa and the Bible. I think this essay is very important because disputes about how to engage with Scripture is one of the leading causes over the current friction between the Episcopal Church and African Anglicans.

Here are some highlights:

As a result of this inculturation of the Word of God, in fairly recent times, denominational differences in Africa don’t mean much. Importantly, outside of South Africa perhaps, there is not a distinctively Anglican approach to the Bible in Africa. African specialist and Episcopal priest the Rev. Dr. Grant Le Marquand tells me that “Western denominationalism doesn’t make a lot of sense in Africa. In East Africa, for example, all the various churches pretty much look the same – if you had a blindfold on you might not tell the difference.” But, he says there are some distinctives in African biblical engagement, in general.

First of all, Africans are generally critical of modern Western approaches to the Bible, including those of the 19th century evangelists who brought them the Bible. Africans identify very much with the worldview of the Bible – finding it reminiscent of their own traditional African worldviews. They believe the modern Western worldview, bereft of mystery, spirits and supernaturalism, doesn’t truly resonate with the biblical worldview. The typical African sees a universe steeped in mystery – a cosmic landscape dotted with spirits, sorcery, animal sacrifice, ancestor worship, and so on – much like the one they find described in Scripture. When Africans were freed from Western interpretations of the text, and Western disparagement of African culture, they could read the Bible themselves. And, importantly, the world Africans encountered in Scripture was closer to their own world than the world of the missionaries. “When they would encounter passages about sacrifice, tyranny, blood, suffering, spirit, healing, etc. – they could deeply grasp it as of their own worldview," Le Marquand writes. "The African noted how closely connected that their world and the biblical world are.”

In addition to identifying more closely with the Bible’s own supernaturalist worldview, Africans also identify with the Bible’s communal vision of humanity. Africans are surprised by Western individualistic approaches to the Bible. They do not believe individuals are equal to the task of biblical interpretation. Ubuntu is the African notion that a person’s identity depends upon her relationships. Whereas the modern Western mindset seems to be, “I think therefore I am,” the ubuntu mindset is, “I am because we are.”

Finally, in addition to a worldview steeped in mystery, and a communal understanding of human identity, Africans engage with the Word of God in the Bible from within their context of suffering and pain.

With few exceptions, modern Africa is a study in pain, death, disease, war and oppression. Independence from colonial rule did not bring ‘the true law of liberty’ to Africa. As such, all African Christians read the Bible in light of brutal circumstances. It is perhaps this last distinctive which draws them so deeply into the biblical story – which is about suffering and deliverance, oppression and liberation, bondage and redemption.

Read it all here.

As Father Jones observes, this view of the Scriptures has served the African Church quite well. It has allowed Christianity in Africa to remain true to African culture, and Christianity is thriving as a result. But it is a view of the Bible that leaves little room for dispute on issues like same sex relationships. And that explains a great deal of what is now occurring within the Anglican Communion.

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