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Transmission Trouble: Clashes in English Language Theological Education in Africa


Three Alternatives of Language Transfer

I suggest there are three alternative ways an outside language can have influence. I want to look at these three options and ascertain, through discussion, which is dominant. While our focus is on theological education, this issue is much wider.[4]

The first option I want to look at is that learning theology through another language will change the recipients of the education to where they model the intentions of the theological authors they are drawing on. This is typically the objective, aim, and hope of those advocating that Western curricula of theological education be exported to Africa. African people are expected to learn in the same way as do trainee-theologians in the West. Levels of adoption of the teaching concerned are expected to be as high in Africa as they are amongst the originally targeted Western audience. (For it not to be so could bring issues of racism.) There may be an acknowledgment that there will need to be some kind of adjustment to compensate for ‘culture’. The nature of that adjustment is not closely known, nor is it articulated. In the vast majority of cases, it is African people who are expected to make such adjustment, while being expected to pass the same examinations as their non-African colleagues.

The second alternative that I want to consider is that there be imitation of language use, but not change in behaviour. According to this model, African students will describe the African context as if it is Western. This kind of learning is often known as rote-learning. It is often acknowledged that a lot of this goes on in African educational settings. In this scenario, the student realises that a correct answer is required. They also know that their own context and way of thinking will, if applied to the subject in question, quite likely result in an answer different to the one expected. Students will therefore, regardless of the context on the ground, endeavour to give the answer expected by the West. African students will have learned how to express themselves as if they are Western students, regardless of their contextual reality.

The third option could be called contextualisation. For this option, the African person will use English, but use it in an African way. For example, many African ethnic groups circumcise their young people. Baptism is a rite brought by the Gospel. African people may contextualise and take circumcision in lieu of or as a dynamic equivalent to baptism. In case two above, they would do so, i.e. they would circumcise, but they would refer to ‘circumcision’ as ‘baptism’. According to this option three, they will be honest and say ‘we circumcise our young people into faith’. When asked about the Trinity, they may say, ‘no, we do not believe the Holy Spirit to be a person. We believe the Holy Spirit to be God’. When asked if someone can have assurance of salvation, they will respond according to the above-mentioned widespread African understanding of salvation as being prosperous living, and say no, because clearly someone can cease to prosper. If asked whether they believe God to be love, they will accept. If asked how they express that love, they will be honest and say ‘we spend a lot of time at funerals’.

The three options above can be illustrated using timliness as an example. African people are renowned for having a different concept of time to Westerners. Let us say that African churches tend to gather on Sunday’s at noon, but their Western compatriots at 10.00 a.m. In number one above, the Western-trained theologian will meet at 10.00 a.m. no matter what. In case two, he will say that they meet at 10.00 a.m., but they will meet at noon as usual. In case three, the Western-trained theologian will simply be honest and say ‘we meet at noon’, and that is when they meet, even though according to what they are told in bible college, that might be ‘wrong’.

The actual outcome of Western-based English language theological education is likely to be if not bound to result in a combination of the above three. I now want to ask; what does that look like?

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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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