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Transmission Trouble: Clashes in English Language Theological Education in Africa

  • Illustrations depicting Jesus always seem to show him wearing robes or a gown and often a sash. The Bible explains how elaborately priests ought to dress (Exodus 28). Westerners in general, and many missionaries in particular, while they may consider themselves to be liberally minded in terms of what constitutes acceptable dress, baulk at the idea of dressing like Jesus and his followers in the pictures. Many African people would like to dress that way. They cannot understand why Western missionaries tell them not to.
  • African Christian practice what is often known as ‘problem-solving’. People who attend churches are often adults who have problems. Although the Bible talks favourably of children (e.g. Matthew 18:2-6) there is no mention that there should be gatherings or teaching oriented to children. It seems, then, that Biblical Christianity does not recognise children’s programmes as something distinct from church for adults. Western churches however tend to be strongly in favour of ‘Sunday schools’ for children …


When conflicting understandings are ignored

English originates from a people whose worldview and life-understanding is very different to that of many people in Africa.

This section asks why the kinds of misunderstandings mentioned above are not given more attention.

English is in extensive use throughout Africa. In formal circles, in large swathes of the continent, English is often the only officially accepted tongue. Pragmatically this situation has been caused by a variety of factors. Not least, English is popular because it is the language of money, influence, and power. Who would prefer another tongue, if English so effectively connects one to sources of basic needs and prosperity? Another widespread reason for the preference for English-use in Africa is contemporary mobility. As soon as one brings non-local people into a discourse, certain members are unlikely to know alternative languages, but there is a good chance that all will have at least a rudimentary grasp of English. Widespread use of English is of course self-popularising – as more and more people who see its resulting value come to invest more and more into learning it.

The above situation creates an interesting dynamic. I will here consider theological education and the associated growth and development of the church. I will consider especially Protestant churches that have as an important tenet of belief that people should be able to read and understand God’s Word, the Bible, in their own languages. I want to ask how this works, or whether this works, in contemporary African contexts.

We could add, that it is not English per se that is the problem. Problems in use of English arise because English originates from a people whose worldview and life-understanding is very different to that of many people in Africa. Official meanings and ways to use of English are aligned to Western culture, making it difficult to use the same language in relation to African contexts.

It should be clear that we are starting with a situation in which African people are understanding themselves in the light of their own languages and contexts. They have their own worldviews – although the term worldview is probably too narrow, as it implies a dominance of the visual sense, whereas African people may be more concerned with what they feel then what they see (Oyéwùmi prefers to talk of world-sense rather than worldview for African people [Oyéwùmi 2002: 458]). I would add that perhaps world-feel would be even better! Because someone will always understand anything new or unknown with respect to what they already know and who they already are, the African world-feel is the framework through which Christian teachings will be received from the outside. Anything new will need to be translated to fit into African languages, culture and contexts. This applies to English itself. The English language will be forced to jettison its moorings in Western ways of life if it is to be appropriated as a translation of African language(s). This is obviously a point of great tension: to be fully realised, something needs to happen that is impossible.

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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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