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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

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As a landscape can look quite different at different times of day or in different weather as the varying angles and hues of light on a terrain make different parts of that landscape stand out in sharp relief, so reading the Bible in a different cultural setting can highlight and bring out things you’d never seen before. I mentioned a few examples of this in an earlier post and here are a few more features of the Bible landscape that the preaching of Kenyan brothers has helped me see and appreciate in a new way.

Shame

It is sometimes said that African and Asian cultures are shame cultures (concerned about issues of public face and community rejection) whereas Western culture is a guilt culture (concerned about individual objective transgression of the law). Perhaps there is some truth in that but actually I think Western culture is a shame culture too just in a different way. Some things that would not be shameful in Kenya are shameful in the UK and vice versa. I’ll try to explore that more in another post. But what is certainly true is that when you are away from your home culture you notice the shame issue more.

When Ken Irungu was giving us an overview of 2 Timothy and preaching through the first chapter, one of the things that really struck me was how he brought out the theme of shame and being unashamed. In his time of trial Paul has been deserted (2 Tim. 4:16) and he calls Timothy ‘not to be ashamed of the gospel or of me his prisoner’ (1:8) but rather to be like Onesiphorus who was ‘not ashamed of my chains’ (1:16).

Challenging convention, being different, being outspoken can often be taken as shameful in a communal culture. To undergo arrest or punishment by the authorities, even when undeserved, will be seen as shameful. Even to suffer through illness, bereavement or some calamity can suggest that you under some sort of cloud of curse of misfortune. So for Paul to be suffering, and particularly suffering institutional persecution for the sake of his preaching, is a shameful thing and people will naturally respond by dissociating themselves and distancing themselves from him so as not to share the shame or pick the contagion. He will be rejected by the community, in itself a shameful thing, making him even more a figure of shame.

Being shown this theme has made the letter of 2 Timothy stand out in sharper relief for me. And I have also started to notice it all over the New Testament – the words ‘shame’ or ‘ashamed’ coming about 40 times. The death of Christ was a shameful thing (Heb. 12:2). The call of Jesus is to take up our cross (i.e. be willing to be shamed) and not be ashamed of me or my words else the Son of Man will be ashamed of him (Mk. 8:34-38). “Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Heb. 13:13).

Elder brother

In African cultures the role of the firstborn is well understood. I remember being in a Bible study in the Gambia looking at Colossians 1:15 and the African brothers there had no problem understanding the significance of Jesus being the ‘firstborn’. They didn’t get distracted by the JW misunderstanding that this means that Jesus is a created being, they understood that just as the firstborn in a house is next to the father and has all the rights and authority and status of the father (particularly when the father is away), so Jesus is next to the Father and has delegated to him all the functions and power of the Father.

Then Stanley Wandeto was preaching on Luke 15 – the parable of the two sons – and he showed me something that I had never seen about the elder brother there. It’s a parable full of shocking (shameful) behaviour (e.g. the younger son asking for his inheritance, the old man running, the father begging his son) but the one I hadn’t seen was that the elder brother is shocking in that he doesn’t go looking for the younger son. Traditionally a responsibility of the firstborn is to look after his younger siblings, to keep watch over them, to care for them and keep them in line. When the younger son insults his father and goes off into a life of recklessness, it is the job of the firstborn (not the father) to run after his brother and plead with him to come back.

Now I think of it, I realise that this is the godly concern that many of my Kenyan friends and colleagues have within their own families, particularly those who are firstborns, to pursue and win back straying siblings.

This gives another level and depth to the characterisation of the elder brother in the parable. His hatred towards his younger brother does not start when he comes home and a party is thrown for him, it starts much earlier in his failure to search for him. The self-righteous Pharisees (who are the target of the parable) are at fault not only for their failure to welcome sinners but their failure to go out looking for sinners (cf. Jesus who welcomes and seeks the lost).

Dead dog

Before I came to Kenya I’m not sure I’d seen a dead dog before. Now I see one almost every time I go to the office, lying in the road. Africa is full of stray dogs. Mostly a yellow-brown colour, small to medium size, thin, feral, searching for scraps. They have a hard pathetic life and then they get hit by a truck or starve.

In most African cultures, for a person to be compared to a dog is an extremely insulting and shameful thing. For one thing the distinction between animals and humans is much sharper than in the West (where pets are part of the family and people get very upset over a gorilla being shot) and for another thing dogs are a particularly dirty and ignoble animal (in contrast to something more noble like a lion or a rhino).

So when Fidel Nyikuri preached Mark 7:27 to us and also reminded us of Mephibosheth in 2 Kings 9, it came home very powerfully what it means for us to be a dead dog – pathetic, despised, dirty, base, in the lowest place. And yet – the wonder of the gospel – we who are not entitled to anything are invited to eat at the king’s table and share the children’s bread (Mk. 8:1-9).

Water and milk

In parts of the world where water comes clean, clear, pure and cold straight from the tap and is basically never cut off, it is difficult to appreciate the preciousness of water. In parts of the world where milk is delivered to the door and is always there when you open the fridge, alongside three or four other beverages and fifteen food items, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of milk.

However in places where the climate is hot and dry and water is scarce, where it has to be searched for or brought up from the ground with effort, then there is much more impact when we read in Isaiah of drawing ‘water from the wells of salvation’ (Isa. 12:3), a ruler and renewal which is ‘like streams of water in the desert’ (Isa. 32:2; 35:6; 41:18; 43:20; 44:3), a shepherd God who leads his people ‘beside springs of water’ (Isa. 49:10). Similarly, in a community where milk (drawn by hand from your own animals) is a key part of the diet (in some pastoralist communities people survive purely on milk for days a time and even down-country in many villages the one animal you will own is a cow), then the land flowing with milk and honey is very meaningful picture.

Preaching from Isaiah 55 Gerald Mwangi helped us imagine working all morning on the farm, digging in the sun, drinking nothing, and then finishing your work in the early afternoon desperate for… water. Then to think of what we take from childhood onwards to make us strong, to give us energy, to build us up… milk.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.”

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Augustine of Hippo is a towering figure in church history and theology. All agree that he was born a Berber in what is now Algeria. But there is quite some debate about how African Augustine really was. Some of this surrounds the question of how dark his skin was – something that was almost irrelevant to the understanding of ethnicity in the Ancient world (ethnicity was understood much more in terms of place, language, customs and kinship). Some have suggested that since Roman north Africa was part of the Roman empire and since Augustine was skilled in Latin rhetoric, spent several years in Italy and was heavily influenced by the classical philosophers, he is more Roman than African.

Four points in answer:

  1. Augustine clearly understood himself to be an African. He talks of “Pontitianus, our countryman so far as being an African, in high office in the Emperor’s court” (Confessions, Book 8, emphasis added). Admittedly, when Augustine talks of ‘Africa’ (e.g. four times in his Confessions) he is almost certainly speaking of the Roman Province of Africa – central, coastal North Africa excluding Morocco and Egypt and certainly not including sub-Saharan Africa. However Roman ‘Africa’ was a distinctive place in the Empire, one that Augustine identified with and where he spent most of his life serving as a presbyter, preacher and overseer of the church.
  2. No culture is sealed. There is no pure indigenous culture. Every culture has come from somewhere else, is a mixture of influences from different places and is gradually (or speedily) in the process of change. North African cultures had clearly been greatly impacted by the coming of pagan-classical Roman rule and then, a few hundred years later, by the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. But Roman Africa would have been a very different place from Roman Britain or Roman Italy. As recent post-colonial theorists and anthropologists have discovered, colonialism (ancient or modern) does not create monolithic cultural hegemony but rather a complex patchwork of hybrid cultures as different places interact with the colonising culture in different ways. At the same time, the colonising culture turns out to be equally complex, changeable and undergoes its own hybridisation. The fact that Africans like Augustine and Pontitianus were working in Rome, not as slaves but as free men, teaching rhetoric to the elite, shows a different side to the Roman Empire than the one we often see in films like Gladiator, where the only Africans coming into Rome seem to be slaves to be slaughtered in the Colosseum. The Roman Empire was highly multi-cultural. That could be seen in an African man with a Roman name, following an eastern mystery religion (Manichaeism), with a professorship in classical rhetoric in the heart of the Empire and being prompted by tales of Egyptian monastics (especially Anthony) to consider a Palestinian religion (The Way) which has been adopted by the Roman state. The Roman world was highly diverse, interconnected and mobile with people like Augustine and his family quite able to make trips between Italy and Africa. So let us give up the idea of distinct, hermetically sealed ‘African’ and ‘Western’ cultures, either in history or today.
  3. When Augustine describes his family (in Confessions, Book 9) there are some quite African-sounding cultural details. His maternal grandfather, when a baby, was carried on the back of a young village girl “as little ones used to be carried on the backs of elder girls.” Augustine’s mother Monica (a Berber name) was brought up largely by a maid who was very strict with her, including making sure she didn’t drink too much water, a discipline to prevent intemperance. And as Monica comes close to death, Augustine notes how his brother tries to encourage his mother to keep going on the journey back home (from Italy to Africa) “wishing for her, as the happier lot, that she might die, not in a strange place, but in her own land.” Quite an African sensibility.
  4. Despite the complex influences upon him, ultimately Augustine was neither captive to his African culture nor Roman culture because he came to encounter the culture-transcending God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the pages of Scripture. At first the words of the Bible were repulsive to him: “they seemed to me unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of [Cicero]; for my swelling pride shrunk from their lowliness, nor could my sharp wit pierce the interior thereof. Yet were they such as would grow up a little one [child]. But I disdained to be a little one; and swollen with pride, took myself to be a great one.” (Confessions, Book 3). Augustine’s polished classical education prejudiced him against the rough bluntness of the Bible’s language while his pride, and perhaps also his African upbringing which would no doubt have emphasised the importance of transitioning from boy to man, prejudiced him against a reverse rite of passage – transitioning from man to little child. But, despite the cultural offence, he describes how he was slowly, agonisingly, irresistibly drawn by the saving power of God and through these same Scriptures was brought to Christ, crucifying his old nature and putting on Christ. And how then the Scriptures came alive to him, especially the Psalms: “how was I by them kindled towards Thee, and on fire to rehearse them, if possible through the whole world, against the pride of mankind” (Confessions, Book 9). It is these Scriptures which gave Augustine his strong doctrines of the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man – doctrines which are foolish and offensive to the natural man. It is these Scriptures which gave his mother Monica an increasing awareness of the surpassing goodness of the Future Land prepared for her such that by the time of her death she was no longer concerned to be buried on her ancestral land. It is these Scriptures which are the only hope for people from all nations.

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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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