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Transmission Trouble: Clashes in English Language Theological Education in Africa

  • The Bible gives numerous examples of people prospering because they have developed a close relationship with God. The Mosaic Law was given to enable good living. Hence, one would expect believers to prosper more than non-believers. By extension, people who prosper will disproportionately be believers, and people who do not prosper will be those who have sinned. Contrary to this, many Western Christians minimise the association between Christian belief and good fortune. Notions that diseases like AIDS are a result of sin, foundational to African belief, are frowned upon in the West. Why, when the Bible seems so clear?
  • African people are in their lives much troubled by untoward ancestors. They see many instances when Jesus cast out evil spirits, which are presumed to be spirits of ancestors, from people in New Testament times. See for example Mark 1:25-27. In Africa, this is seen as being very valuable ministry. Western theologians cannot see the point in doing this, and may tell African people that the spirits that cause us so many troubles do not exist.
  • The Bible tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and that people should love one another (John 13:34). The clearest demonstration of love as understood in parts of Africa, is attendance at funerals. Much demonstration of love requires elaborate, long lasting funeral ceremonies attended by large numbers of people. Should they realise the time, expense, and effort, spent on funeral expenses, Westerners can easily be aghast at such ‘waste’ on behalf of the dead. They would rather see people working productively to bring development.
  • Abraham took great trouble to obtain a burial site for his wife, himself, and then also Isaac (presumably, Genesis 23, 25:9). Jacob insisted that he also be buried in the same vicinity (Genesis 50:5). Joseph’s bones were carried many miles for many years until they could be buried in Canaan (Joshua 24:32). The spot at which Rachel was buried was marked by a prominent memorial (Genesis 35:20). Jesus body was laid to rest in a specifically assigned tomb (John 19:41-42). Burning the bones of a dead king was considered a serious offence in the Old Testament (Amos 2: 1; 2 Kgs 23: 16):

We will show that burning the bones of the dead was a bad omen and it meant total obliteration of the dead. It came to profane the memory of the dead since no honor was paid to him and his spirit wondered [sic] aimlessly. It was an end to continuity and the final extinction of the deceased, who had not been “gathered to his ancestors.” In other words, he did not have a share in the resurrection of the dead.[3]

All these events show that dead bodies were in Biblical times held to be important. This seems to be far from the popular Western, especially Western Protestant view, that a dead body is merely a useless collection of chemicals to be disposed of, if necessary by burning it (cremation). Many African Christians struggle to accept that cremation is appropriate for their dead.

  • Christian theologians agree that God is omnipresent. God is present everywhere and in everything. In the West, things like dramatic sunsets especially remind us of God. Extraordinarily large trees and boulders remind African people about God. For them it is natural to consider such places to be holy. From the West, giving such objects exceptional awe can be taken as inappropriate superstition.
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    Category: Fall 2019, In Depth

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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