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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

biblical-christianity-in-african-perspective

Reviewed by iServe Africa apprentice Daphne Kabeberi:

This book contains a lot more than I’d expected to find in it. I’d thought it would specifically be about African Christianity as a phenomenon, but I ended up receiving an excellent summary of the main Christian doctrines.

Unlike many theological writings, its simple language and style make it easy to read. It is divided into 18 chapters which first lay a foundation for believing the Jesus of the Bible, and then go on to explain the implications of this for sinful mankind and for the church that exists in a sinful world.

On any given topic, the book borrows from the whole counsel of Scripture and is therefore faithful to the overarching Biblical story of redemption in Christ. The author avoids taking any divisive denominational stand on the doctrines outlined. Instead, he tends to lay out various view points as long as they can be scripturally backed, which I found helpful.

At the same time there is a distinctive African perspective which means that this book fulfils the very real need of helping Christians understand the spiritual peculiarities evidenced in African contexts. It’s quite interesting that the author isn’t African, although he seems to have worked extensively and intensively in Africa.

The author does an excellent job of convincing the reader that every single African practice must be weighed up against God’s will for man as revealed in his Word. He teaches that Christians shouldn’t blindly follow tradition in matters like initiation, but rather realize that our highest loyalty is to God and our primary community and acceptance is to be found amongst fellow believers. Readers are reminded that only God can deliver us from evil, so it is sinful and counterproductive to attempt to seek protection through magic, necromancy, etc.

In conclusion, much as it’s primarily written to help those serving in African contexts to apply the Bible to their situations, it has very useful information for all contexts – even for unbelievers who would like to better understand Christianity. It is the sort of book any Bible scholar or pastor would want to have on their bookshelf as simple, handy reference material.

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“Through the law,” he says, “comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). He shows here how much and how far the law helps. In other words, he shows that ‘free will’ by itself is so blind that it is not even aware of sin, but has need of the law to teach it. But what effort to get rid of sin will anyone make who is ignorant of sin? Obviously, he will regard what is sin as no sin, and what is no sin as sin. Experience shows this plainly enough by the way in which the world, through those it regards as the best and most devoted to righteousness and godliness, hates and persecutes the righteousness of God proclaimed by the gospel, calling it heresy, error, and other abusive names, while advertising its own works and ways, which in truth are sin and error, as righteousness and wisdom. With this text, therefore, Paul stops the mouth of ‘free will’ when he teaches that through the law sin is revealed to it as to one ignorant of his sin. That is how far he is from conceding to it any power of striving after the good. [Luther, The Bondage of the Will]

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Analysing slogans on matatus and buses is a fun pastime in traffic. This one made me think a bit more the normal. Some good and challenging stuff here:

  • It’s good to pray. And good to pray each day (“daily bread”). And we’re particularly encouraged to pray “deliver us from evil.” I’m rebuked for my prayerlessness.
  • There’s an important recognition here that the devil is a great enemy. He does indeed prowl around seeking to destroy. The world is not simply mechanical cause and effect. There is a spiritual battle going on.
  • The way that a slogan about prayer is unashamedly pasted in big black and white letters on the front of public transport is a sharp contrast to the secularised anti-religious public space in many Western countries where no-one would dream of putting such a message on a public vehicle.
  • There is an interesting juxtaposition of the slogan and the bus it is pasted on. Perhaps an intended connecting of the world of transport and commuting with the spiritual realm. Again I find this challenging and helpful. The Western worldview has little room for praying for a journey or about mechanical issues. Here is an attempt to integrate daily life and physical practicalities with the reality of an intimately involved personal God.

But on the other hand I’d like to ask the guy who pasted that slogan on the bus four questions:

  1. Are you thinking of prayer as a ‘thing’ that you do? Prayer in and of itself does nothing and merits nothing. It is the person you are praying to who needs to do something. Prayer is (or should be) simply talking to a person who can do something.  Which brings us to the next question…
  2. Who are you praying to? If there is no God you are wasting your time. If there is a God who is unconcerned or powerless you are wasting your time. If you are praying to a god other than the Lord and Father of Jesus Christ revealed in his Scriptures you are in great spiritual danger. And if you are praying to that Father, the follow up question might be, Why do you think he should listen to you?
  3. How would you know if your prayer was answered? Or to ask this another way, What is the worst that the devil could do which causes you to pray that he is kept away? I wonder whether, behind this slogan, and perhaps implied by its placement on the front of a bus is the thought that the devil is the one who brings disaster, accident and death. So to keep the devil away is to keep disaster, accident and death away. But what if the devil’s main agenda is to deceive us, to take us away from a pure devotion to Christ, to rob us of joy in Christ (John 8:44; 2 Cor. 11:3)? Perhaps the devil would be quite happy with us having safe travel and healthy lives so long as our hearts are drawn away from Christ to love the world and the things in the world.
  4. Are you in Christ? The idea of keeping the devil away implies that he is already away from us. But what if we are right now under the power of the devil? What if we are captive to him? What if he is working in us? (Eph. 2:2) In that case a prayer a day is not the answer. We need the Stronger Man to rescue us from the Strong Man. We need God to deliver us from captivity by the death and resurrection of His Son. Then, seated with Christ, secure in Him, indwelt by the Greater Spirit, we can enjoy praying to our heavenly Father, through the righteousness of the Son, in the communing power of the Spirit. And it would be good then to ask, among other things, for protection from the enemy of our souls.

 

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You’ve seen them. Plenty of them. They come in a number of categories:

  • Security alerts. Either terrorism related (suicide attack planned on Hotel X / don’t go to this mall tomorrow) or local crime (thugs have come up with a new way to mug you / if you see X don’t stop your car).
  • Health scares. Don’t reuse plastic bottles / your car aircon will give you cancer.
  • Warnings of occult activity or fulfilment of end time prophecy. Your Bible is an Illuminati translation / the government is going to implant us with a mark-of-the-beast microchip / if you answer phone calls from this number you will be kidnapped by Satanists and sacrificed. (I even saw a message warning you not to forward hoax messages because they are being used by occultists to distribute hidden messages #Ironic)

There are probably other categories but those are the most common I’m seeing at the moment and the first three are the ones I see forwarded the most in our context. An obvious thing to say is that we need to check the truth of something before we forward it. Often the fact that there is no source given or errors in spelling, punctuation or captialisation is a sign this is rubbish. Often a quick Google is enough to show that it is a hoax (e.g. on plastic bottles see the Cancer Research UK statement). But drilling down a bit further through this; what is really going on here? Why does this stuff just keep on spreading? What are the cultural and personal forces behind this? Well I’m not at all sure – please share your thoughts below – but a few suggestions:

  1. Love. There is often a genuine concern for our brothers and sisters. We want to warn and we would want to be warned. I don’t doubt this is a major motivation.
  2. Oral culture. We are an oral culture; which means that information is generally not derived from official written channels (systems) but from informal word-of-mouth (personal contacts). For example, if I need to know how to apply for a particular permit or license I will not go to the government website (which may not actually have all the necessary information uploaded there, which is telling) but rather I will go to a friend or contact in the relevant ministry or who has experience of dealing with them and ask his advice.
  3. Democratisation of journalism. In the new century everyone is a journalist. I can start a Twitter account or Youtube account and instantly become the key authority on what is going on in Syria or Somalia. Presence (or apparent presence) is everything. Instead of trusting the BBC or KBC to select and edit sources for me I want the raw feeds; I want to be my own news editor. Put this on top of a pre-existing oral culture and you have a powerful combination.
  4. Free-floating information. Sources don’t matter. Citation is not important. Information is information, right? At school I copy the teacher and you copy me. Everything is ripped or downloaded. I share, you share, someone else shares. Who cares where it came from? We swim in a postmodern soup of soundbites and hashtags and un/misattributed quotations. (with many notable exceptions)
  5. Distrust of institutions and authority. Postmodern philosophy teaches us that power creates its own truth; history is written by the victors; all official speak is propaganda; every government agency is running covert black opps. There is enough truth in this to make it a very potent idea. Years of impunity and corruption at the lowest to the highest levels inevitably breeds distrust and cynicism. So instead of government and police we trust the little people and the rebels. Urban legends, conspiracy theories and Voodoo Histories multiply.
  6. Fear. This is the big one. As Edward Welch reminds us, fear is a massive motivation behind many of our actions… and our fears whisper to us of deeper fears… and our deeper fears whisper about what we really value. As a friend was pointing out to me this morning, there is a huge amount of fear in our nation at the moment and much of it boils down to a fear of death. As those in Christ, do we fear everything the world fears or call conspiracy everything the world calls conspiracy? (Isaiah 8:12) Do we believe the world is out of control or that that the Lord with scars is on the throne and ruling all things? (Rev. 5-6) Can we say with Paul, “to live is Christ to die is gain”?

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I’ve been struck by a number of things in Luke’s gospel that I would never have noticed or would never have got the full force of without reading them in this context with East African brothers.

  1. Food. In the West, often food is a matter of fuelling – like putting petrol in a car. You can grab a sandwich or packet of crisps on the go or eat at your desk. Only very special meals like Christmas or a first date have really serious relational significances. But here you don’t eat just because you’re hungry. You don’t ask, “Have you eaten?” when a guest arrives at 2pm (as I once did). You give them food. And you don’t really start talking until there’s food (or at least tea) on the table. Food says, “We are together, we are relating”. So now I start to see the huge shock of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:30) and the beauty of the many eating scenes throughout Luke.
  2. Naming and tradition. In Western cultures you can call your child pretty much anything you like. Some names might raise an eyebrow slightly (e.g. Green, Leviathan or Cheese) but only for a moment. The surname tends to be pretty constant but even this is increasingly flexible as women maintain maiden names as business names etc. But in Africa, many communities have a very strong tradition of naming – taking names from relatives in a precise order, rotating names or naming according to day of the week or weather conditions. I remember as we read through Luke 1:157-66 (the naming of John the Baptist) and a Kenyan sister related to the shock that the relatives felt that Elizabeth and Zechariah were breaking tradition and going against the naming of their culture, it came home to me what a big thing this was.
  3. Honouring parents. Many western cultures (I realise parts of the US are quite different) have moved towards pretty casual relationships between parents and their children. Respect, honour, authority are not valued. Fear and reverence would be widely seen as laughable or pathological. Furthermore, there is little sense of ongoing obligations of children to parents. In traditional African cultures though there is something much closer to traditional middle eastern culture. So when I was reading through the story of Jesus failing to go to the door when his mother and brothers arrive (Luke 8:19-21) the guy I was reading with was completely stunned by the offensiveness of it and genuinely troubled that Jesus could do such a thing. And then you get to Luke 9:59-62 where Jesus calls a man away from burying his father (and there you get the added weight of responsibility to the dead) and another from even saying goodbye. And then you get Jesus talking about dividing families (Luke 12:53) and most extreme of all, that anyone who does not hate father and mother, wife, children and brothers cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:26). Shocking anywhere but in an African context this is dynamite (but then for Muslim background believers the truth of these things might well be more evident). Against this backdrop you can appreciate all the more the shocks and joys of Luke 15:11-32 too.

Collected resources on Luke:

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There is a good deal of debate about the use of ‘Daddy’ as an appropriate translation of ‘Abba’. Do we run the risk of a flippant, casual approach? Are we in danger of reading too much of our modern cultural understandings and feelings about daddies into a very different culture? Well for a bit of historical perspective, here’s a puritan commentator from 300 years ago…

Whereby we cry, Abba, Father. Praying is here called crying, which is not only an earnest, but a natural expression of desire; children that cannot speak vent their desires by crying. Now, the Spirit teaches us in prayer to come to God as a Father, with a holy humble confidence, emboldening the soul in that duty.
Abba, Father. Abba is a Syriac [Aramaic] word signifying father or my father [or O father (vocative)]; pater, a Greek work; and why both, Abba, Father? Because Christ said so in prayer (Mk 14:36), Abba, Father: and we have received the Spirit of the Son. It denotes an affectionate endearing importunity [persistent demanding], and a believing stress laid upon the relation. Little children, begging of their parents, can say little but Father, Father, and that is rhetoric enough. It also denotes that the adoption is common both to Jews and Gentiles: the Jews call him Abba in their language, the Greeks may call him pater in their language; for in Christ Jesus there is neither Greek nor Jew.
(Matthew Henry’s Complete Bible Commentary, Romans 8)

A couple of challenges:

  • For those of us who think, What’s the big deal? Of course we can say ‘Daddy’ – we need to repent of our narcissistic entitlement mentality and get a much bigger vision of the God of the Bible. We need to read the last few chapters of Job and see an indescribably majestic Creator and Judge. We need to read some big chunks of Ezekiel and see the blazing fury of a jealous God. And then we need to be utterly gobsmacked that we can come to this God as Abba.
  •  For those of us who are nervous of using words like ‘Daddy’ in prayer and fear an over-intimate or over-bold approach to such an awesome Creator and Lord – then a) perhaps we need to question whether our own negative experiences (or lack) of fathers is feeding into our image of God and b) certainly we need to take a look again at the almost-unbelievably-good gospel – that the white-hot holy King of the Universe should come to love us as intensely and perfectly as He loves the Son of God himself (John 17:23). See what manner of love the Father has given unto us…

 

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