Thursday, June 15, 2017

Dead Gecko on the Floor - Contrary Thoughts on Hermeneutics (and Theological Education) in Africa

I rather like geckos.  These little lizards run up the walls, defy gravity and run across the ceiling.  They eat all manner of insects that co-habitate with me in my small Nairobi flat.  And some of them do a passable job of shifting colors to match their surroundings.  So I was pleased when I discovered a baby gecko had taken up residence in my bathroom.  From time to time I saw him scurrying along the floorboard in my sitting room.  Most recently he had taken to occupying the very small space between the floor and the bottom of my door, presumably because of the adventure and attraction of the great beyond.  Two days ago I came in to discover him in the middle of the floor.  He didn’t move when I walked by, and I assumed that he thought he was hiding.  When I got up the next morning, I discovered that he was still there.  Of course I went into denial, what all of us do when confronted with the possibility of unpleasantness.  Sure enough the hours went by, and the gecko remained nailed to the floor, as it were.  So I decided to do a proper investigation.  The results were conclusive.  My little gecko was seriously dead.  This prompted the need for a body removal, as well as some tinge of regret.  Death by blunt force, and the blunt force was undoubtedly caused by me, however inadvertently.  It’s one of the hazards of sharing a living space with a creature 10,000 or more times one’s own mass.

The point of this story is that I managed to live for several days with a dead gecko on my floor, assuming it was doing what geckos do, before making the sad discovery that this gecko, at least, had long before been sent off to shadowy realm of the ancestor geckos.

There has been much hue and cry, at least as much as is possible in academic papers and scholarly books, over the need to rescue African Christianity from the depredations of Western theology and Western Biblical interpretation.  If such people were aware of Eastern theology and Eastern Biblical interpretation, they would undoubtedly add them to the list of offending parties.  Christianity, it is said again and again, is a Western religion imported by Western missionaries who also imported their Western culture and their Western assumptions, not just along with their Western religion, but with every aspect of life they touched.  These men and women essentially forced Africans to become like Westerners, to forsake their ‘primitive’ clothing, their ‘primitive’ way of educating the next generation, their ‘primitive’ way of treating illnesses, their ‘primitive’ cosmologies, in favour of the superior Western brands.  And so English Anglican missionaries turned Africans into English Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterian missionaries turned Africans into Scottish Presbyterians,  Southern Baptists into Southern Baptists (imagine), Quakers into Quakers, and so forth.  Missionaries saw as part of their mission not just to save African souls from perdition and for heaven, but to save Africans from themselves and their culture, which was presumed to be primitive at best, and positively of the devil at worst.  (I hasten to add that this myth is simply not true.  The Axumite empire, later Ethiopia, was converted to Christianity in the 4th century, and the Church that began then is still going strong and has nearly 50,000,000 members today.  Like I tell my students, if you want to see genuine African Christianity, visit an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church!)

Nevertheless, Christianity was indeed brought to large parts of sub-Saharan Africa by Western missionaries.  We are living their legacy here today.  And while there were some very unfortunate characters populating the missionary community in places like Ethiopia and Kenya and wherever else missionaries tended to accumulate, most of these men and women were decent, sincere, God-fearing people who had given up a lot to follow what they considered to be God’s call on their life to go serve him in a strange land.  We tend to forget that these missionaries, be they Catholic or Protestant, and later Pentecostal and even Orthodox, were, all things considered, very successful.  Many local people might have at first been suspicious of these outsiders.  But with these outsiders often came opportunities, as well as benefits in terms of jobs, or supplies or access to education and health care.  If becoming a church member meant that my son could then join the local school, then I would of course become a church member.  From the beginning, Christianity in many places in Africa was not so much about a transforming relationship with Christ as it was about using religion to get access to something more and something better. 

From the earliest days of missionary Christianity, missionaries complained about the disconnect between the people in their churches claiming to be Christians and the choices these same people were making in terms of how they actually lived their lives.  For all their success in terms of ‘evangelism’ and growing church membership numbers, Christianity was having little if any impact on the local community, on local morality, on local issues.  It’s remarkable how little about this aspect of African Christianity has remained unchanged, even today.

Education has certainly had an impact on African cultures, but education, like religion, is used primarily as a way out of circumstances that are, let’s say, less advantaged.  The same is true for theological education.  From the perspective of Western mission organisations, Western donors and Western missionaries, we have established centers for theological education in Africa so that we can train African Christian leaders who can themselves make disciples, and who can teach with more clarity, accuracy and (presumably) power the Scriptures to their people and then lead them into becoming increasingly healthy churches and platforms for further evangelism, church planting and missions.  Such a beautiful vision.  But for many if not most who end up taking advantage of theological education, be it at the diploma, bachelors, masters or even PhD level, this education enables me to take the next step out of my deprived situation into one where I can translate increasing career success into provision for my nuclear and extended family.  We call this ladder climbing.  We have it in the West as well, but we tend not to think about it because most of us are on the ladder, whether it be in our academic career, our ‘career’ as pastors, with gaining promotions or seniority and it’s perks, etc.  I’m not here to condemn it or all of us, Westerners or Africans, for whom this sort of careerism and ladder climbing is the essence of our Christian ministry experience.  I’m just pointing out that it’s present, it’s real and it’s prevalent.  Instead, what Western Christians have wanted to happen and what is actually happening with respect to theological education, is not the same thing.  

Moreover, we Western missionaries have done a superb job at reproducing ourselves and our institutions in African contexts.  Theological education, just like systematic theology or biblical hermeneutics - none of these are neutral, universal terms.  These are all total Western packages.  So when we set up theological education in our African context, and teach ‘Africans’ hermeneutics or theology, we aren’t teaching them something universal and useful, we’re teaching them something Western and alien. 

Now, I must stop and confess I have been using the word ‘African’ much too broadly (the way most people tend to use it), because Africa is a very big place and also because Africa contains thousands of cultures and languages and contexts that probably contain more differences from each other than similarities to each other.  The use of ‘African’ in any context is useful only if one wishes to oversimplify a point into meaninglessness, or if one wishes also to then catalog the 950 exceptions to the point one was just making. 

I have dealt with the challenges that believing, much less teaching Western theologies in a Kenyan context, in other places. Kenya, of course, had it’s own dreadful colonial experience, and it’s just as if not more dreadful post-colonial experience in terms of governance, social issues, health challenges, etc.  Without repeating earlier arguments, let’s just say that the imported Western theologies, however bravely taught and dutifully mastered, have not even begun to touch the realities that Kenyans face in their day to day lives, much less the assumptions and structures of corruption that define the parameters of so much public life here (one might ask, what does Grudem have to do with Kibera?).  The reason I can say this is that nothing has changed.  For all the Christian noise going on, nothing is changing. In families, in neighbourhoods, in communities, in towns and cities, despite Christian cliches aplenty, life is lived as if Jesus never existed.  In spite of a blizzard of churches and 'ministries' and crusades and praise bands, it's hard to see if Christianity is having any impact on this society (i.e. the way people actually live their lives) at all. And if it is, in some cases it's for the worse.

As a kind of example of this, I want to discuss the area of Biblical hermeneutics or interpretation - one of the courses we offer as a part of theological education.  I am not a Biblical studies person, I’m a historian, and I’ve been frogmarched into teaching theology.  This hasn't stopped me from being asked to teach courses in hermeneutics, and I have taught hermeneutics at the PhD and Masters level, but my experience doing so has raised more questions than it has answered, to which this piece is a testimony.  Hermeneutics is a Western idea translated now into an academic, Biblical Studies discipline.  As with all theological disciplines, the field is crowded with lots of papers and books filled with shocking or arcane claims and arguments, lots of brilliant gurus and many many more acolytes and wannabes.  In fact, in Western institutions, there are too few positions for all of the men and women with shiny new biblical studies PhDs that are being cranked out by these same institutions (conflict of interest?).  So they are forced to become baristas at Starbucks or teach fitness classes at the local YMCA (so if you roll your eyes in exasperation over N.T. Wright’s latest 2000 page book in your yoga class, you might be sorry you did). Like every other academic discipline, biblical studies people are forever trying to carve out increasingly small patches of territory where one still might say something profound that hasn’t been said yet and at the same time attract the attention of some publisher of obscurities, or choose to differ with someone else who put forward yesterday’s profound point, only now of course we realise it was done insufficiently or incorrectly.  'Does the Bible have meaning?'  To this we are treated to entire tomes which, after long and tortured arguments, citing all the necessary sources which themselves had also cited all the necessary sources, come finally to the breathless conclusion that, yes, the Bible has meaning.  Or maybe not.  Thank you.  I am so helped.

It’s in fact difficult to say anything meaningful in much of the discourse that characterizes hermeneutics today.  For this reason, people are constantly seeking new angles on old problems, or, and this is shocking I know, something new to say.  American and European experts long ago ran out of anything new to say. The more Evangelical authors I have read are not saying anything that different from what Fee and Stuart said thirty years ago (except maybe to disagree with Prof. Wright), and even then Fee and Stuart were essentially summing up received wisdom at that point, albeit in a useful and accessible way.  New or not, it’s all serious scholarship, of course.  But is it just as possible that we have somewhere managed to lose the thread?  And of course, good teachers of (western) hermeneutics here in Kenya for example, have to cover all the ground that all the other good Biblical studies scholars have ploughed up before, which means exposing our Kenyan students to endless (Western) arguments as to whether our Bible texts have meaning or convey truth or whatever.  But despite all the careful preparation, scholarship, arguments and assignments, I can assure you that such hermeneutics classes, just like my theology classes, have little if any impact on what goes on the following Sunday when each one of those students sitting in that class are now preaching to their congregations in the manner to which they are accustomed.  Our students are absolute wizards at compartmentalizing.  Whether or not it's articulated, too many take what they are learning in their divinity classes and put it into the mental bin of 'What I must do to graduate.'  Whether it also goes into the separate bin of 'My Christian life' is another issue altogether.

When I lived in Ethiopia, I taught theology and was privileged to have some excellent students and some outstanding discussions and debates in my class.  I really thought I was helping my students to think theologically, and that I was helping them grow in their faith and as a church leader.  But at the end of the class, one of my students said, ‘Dr. Bill, this has been the best class I’ve ever had.  You have really helped me understand what the Bible says.  But if I were to teach these things in my church, they would throw me out.’  So much for being a change agent.

I mention this story because I think we theological educators in general, and we teachers of theology and Bible interpretation in particular, are deceiving ourselves.  We can put together outstanding lectures, have excellent discussions, teach people all the necessary language skills, ensure that they can give back what we teaching them in papers and exams.  But if we look at what our people are actually doing when they leave our class and our school, how they are actually leading, what they are actually preaching and teaching, I think a case can be made that the impact of all our ‘education’ is actually negligible.   So much money is raised from individuals and institutions to build and fund theological institutions in Kenya and across the continent.  So much money raised to give scholarships, to recruit staff and missionaries, who themselves need to raise support.  We have told ourselves again and again that theological education is the great savior of the 'African' (sorry) church.  But we have been doing theological education for the Kenyan churches, for example, for more than 50 years.  In my school, it’s been training Christian leaders and ministers for more than 130 years.  But can anybody say that there has been a credible return on the investment?  Has all this ‘education’ made any difference?

Back to Biblical Interpretation.  Western hermeneuticists, perhaps feeling guilty that the field has been totally dominated by the increasingly minuscule points and counterpoints of their small and Western academic community, have begun suggesting that these arguments may not be entirely relevant to the discussions that are happening (or that need to be happening) in communities of Bible interpreters across the continent of Africa (never mind that the very idea of 'Bible interpretation' is a Western idea from the Modernist era answering a Western Modernist need!).  In fact we Westerners should make room for the so-called ‘African voice’, and that such a voice will undoubtedly enrich the faith of all Christians throughout the world.  This is, of course, a rather gently put plea by one Evangelical to other Evangelicals (a group of people who make much about the authority of the Bible, so long as it’s their interpretation of the Bible that’s allowed to be authoritative).  But for all the concern from the Evangelical camp about hearing such an authentic ‘African voice’ when it comes to understanding Scripture, all too often the only examples of such actual sensitivity come in the form of what might pass in a homiletics course for sermon illustrations, where one uses an aspect of this or that cultural perspective to inform an Old Testament passage that seems obscure to Western readers.  It’s nice to have that.  But is that all that is meant by African voice?  Color commentary to illustrate the points generated by my Western hermeneutical process?

But in the ‘Africa’ of which I’m aware and in which I live, it’s not the local Evangelicals who are concerned about some ‘African voice,’ nor is it the local Pentecostals, who mostly could care less about what happens in schools, much less Western schools.  It's a non-issue in every church of which I'm aware.  Rather the ‘African voices’ that I hear are rather more shrill, more prickly, and they bang on about things like the need to decolonize theology and the Church and our thinking and gender issues, etc.  I do not question that these are legitimate issues.  What is ironic about these African voices (and they are the one’s who tend to publish in the academic journals and the collections of essays and speak at academic conferences) is that almost all of them got their post-graduate education from Western universities (I’m including South Africa in that designation).  So on the one hand, many of these African intellectual elites have had the incredible privilege of a Western masters and PhD (and probably were given a full ride to boot); on the other hand they seem to be, shall we say, biting the hand that fed them, forgetting that the privileged chair in which they sit comes from status earned from their western education provided by the former colonialists themselves, the very ones presumably we are trying to decolonize ourselves and our religion from.  And because many of the people who make up the faculties of such western institutions are not themselves friendly to more conservative brands of Christianity (which tends to be what resulted from missionary endeavors), their 'African' students are no longer the pure channels of an ‘African’ perspective, but rather are influenced, as we all are, by our (in this case Western) education, experiences and friends.  Thus when these ‘African voices’ cloak a critique of the more theologically conservative churches in Kenya, for example, in the language of so-called decolonization and gender wars, it is a bit disingenuous.  Again these critiques are not Kenyan perspectives and Kenyan concerns, but they often reflect liberal (anti-Christian?) western academic ones.  And when these African voices use categories such as decolonization and certain aspects of the current gender controversies, they seem to be channelling more the influence of their postgraduate experience (and prejudices) than saying something legitimate about actual African realities, whatever they are.  For example, the idea of decolonization was used originally in contexts affected by the withdrawal of a British colonial presence.  It has only been more recently appropriated in theological contexts, and no longer tied to particular events or history it has become rather elastic, and now used as a trendy label to excoriate whatever the African voice wants to taint with colonial toxicity.  But have not these ‘African voices’ also benefitted from the same system?  Have they not sold their souls to the very postcolonial masters they so acidly critique?  And even more to the point, despite the West's best efforts, both on the right and on the left, is a genuine 'African voice' even possible any more?  Just asking.

All of us theological educators are busy having all sorts of conversations within our fields with colleagues and with students.  And a good portion of our task as teachers is to ensure that our students know all about all the latest debates and their implications and where things are going within the parameters of our chosen area of study.  And then to justify our existence (at least to our administration) we have to write learned articles and books that demonstrate we are worthy to stand up and tell our students all these important things.  At some point in a course, one hopes one says something meaningful (not in the sense of the hermeneutics question, Is there meaning in this passage?), or useful for some of my students.  But will any of them care this weekend when they are leading the youth group what we discussed about this circle of interpretation or what the genitive case means for that word and thus for that translation of that verse?  No.  Do our courses add up to sanctification or theosis and thus salvation in God’s eyes (or in actual experience)?  No.  Are actual churches being transformed as a result of having students in our classes and in our schools?  Um, well, maybe, if you look at it this way or squint at it that way - but if transformation is not obvious, then it’s probably safe to say it isn’t happening.

The people who came up with the original idea that these ‘Africans’ and their churches really need theological education - all of them were either Westerners or men and women from this continent who were trained in Western institutions.  I’ve been a part of the idea for as long as I have had anything to do with Kenya, which has been since 1980.  I know the Western side and its Evangelical motivations.  I have been that missionary.  But I have also been here long enough to allow a different perception to sink in.  Theological education in Kenya is not a felt need for Kenya or for Kenyan Christians. And who are we Western Christians (conservative or liberal) to tell Christians in Kenya or Ethiopia or Nigeria that they need theological education, and that this is the theological education that they need to have? The felt need expressed by the people I know in Ethiopia and Kenya (and I allow that it is possibly different elsewhere on the continent, which is, as we know, a big place) is for a way for them to get up and out of the terrible life/economic situation they are in.  Most would prefer to go to a university because that degree is more credible, useful and valuable than a theological degree.  But if that door is closed, a theological college will do because getting that diploma or degree may open doors as well.  Of course both Westerners and 'Africans' all know how to spiritualize our motives.  I hate to be cynical here, and there may be glorious exceptions to this.  But most of our students simply do not share our Western-driven elevated hopes for their churches or for the reason they are getting a theology degree, or what motivates them to take a course in hermenuetics.  Only when we grasp this will we begin to understand why Christianity has made so little difference, so little impact in the actual lives of people here, in their morality, in their decision making, in their choices.  This is why nearly 2/3rds of the Christian young people (both men and women!) I surveyed for a study I recently published say that violence between a man and a woman is ok depending on the situation.  This is why more than half of the Christian young men I surveyed stated that they use the internet for their current source of information about sex, which is a polite way of saying they are accessing pornography.  This is why corruption is epidemic in almost every local church that I’m aware of, and why a ‘Christian’ nation such as Kenya tolerates the kleptocracies it calls local, county and national governments.  You would expect with so many Christians here that people would ‘do unto others as they would like others to do unto them’.  But the prevailing philosophy among everybody, including Christians seems to be ‘Do whatever you can get away with’.  I could go on for a long time.  My point is, theological education does not seem to be making any real, meaningful difference in Christianity or churches here.  Theological education in Kenya is satisfying a Western need, not a Kenyan need.  Except when theological education provides a way to earn a diploma or degree to help me take the next step up the ladder out of my poverty.

The need of the Kenyan churches is not for an ‘African voice’ in their interpretation of Scripture.  Nobody here (except in Western-influenced academic contexts) cares about an African voice.  We don’t need to raise up African voices, we need men and women and young people here to experience genuine conversion and actual sanctification and theosis.  The Christianity here is essentially self-centered and self-consumed, again with exceptions.  This is why there is essentially no difference between the churches and the world.  The converted heart is Christ-centered, characterized by repentance, and driven to know Jesus and to make Jesus known. To follow Christ means to give of one’s self and what one has in love, even when it means taking up a cross to do so.  And one can tell a follower of Jesus from the rest because they love.  They make a difference for good wherever God plants them.  Most churches (and their leaders) are bad trees bearing bad fruit, and it will not go well with them when they have to give an account of what they have done with the time and resources entrusted to them by Christ.  But you can tell a church where Jesus is the focus of attention, it’s a church characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.  Wherever Jesus is, there is love.  Where there is no love, a different spirit is in control of that church, or that school, or that home, or that marriage.

Ironically, ‘everybody’ here has a testimony,  They can tell you when they were ‘born-again’.  And the Pentecostals can tell you when they were baptised in the Holy Spirit.  But I’ve quit listening to such ritual displays of necessary piety, because they are meaningless.  The same person is gossiping about their neighbour, going out and getting drunk, beating his wife, stealing from the treasury, plagiarising their PhD course paper, encouraging their daughter to get an abortion, giving bribes to ensure loyalty or to avoid a ticket, etc., etc.   What are we supposed to do with this?

The whole theological education project desperately needs to be reconceived.   Because as it is right now, it seems we are wasting a lot of money, and a lot of time, and a lot of lives on something that is not working.  A good tree bears good fruit.  A bad tree bears bad fruit.  You will know the tree by its fruit.  I recall that someone important once said this.  After so many years of Christianity in Kenya (and the rest of the continent), what does the fruit being produced tell you?

The gecko is on the floor still.  As is theological education in Africa.  It’s not doing anything.  And it hasn’t moved for a long time.  Maybe it’s just sitting there.  Maybe it’s just resting.  Maybe it will surprise me and dash across the floor and up the wall.  But maybe, just maybe, it’s, um, dead.

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