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Vulnerable Mission


Part 2. Achieving Contextualisation

The introduced term roho has been widely used in East Africa to translate the Biblical terms pneuma (Greek) and ruach (Hebrew). This is certainly in part at least because alternative indigenous terms are associated with ‘bad’ or evil, and so have been considered inappropriate to translate a Spirit who is Holy. The effect of the above includes that unlike the term theo itself (generally translated using indigenous terms) pneuma can be considered a stranger to Africa, introduced in the recent missionary era. He therefore represents what is ‘new’. What is also ‘new’ that has come at the same time, is Western style prosperity. Hence the common practice of spiritually oriented (especially Pentecostal churches) in Africa considering pneuma to have brought prosperity, to be given the credit for recent prosperity, and to be appealed to for the sake of more prosperity.[23]

East African understanding seems frequently to be that Nyasaye / Mungu (i.e. theo) determines fate, hence God the Father, the Son and especially the Spirit (pneuma) are widely called upon to bring good fortune. Linking this to an age in which ‘good fortune’ is associated with Western styles of living, we find pneuma hagion being called upon to provide Western goods and lifestyles. This practice is often known as the prosperity Gospel.

The fact that terms which are commonly translatable into English as spirit tend to be evil, would seem to be significant. As even pneuma can be translated as ghost in Greek[24] it would seem that this problem was there also in New Testament times. Part of the Christian message seems to have been a re-orientation of people’s beliefs about pneuma. That is, convincing them that pneuma can be worshipped, because he can be good, and in fact he can be theo.[25] The question of the evil nature of spiritual forces is in Western nations relatively mute, because much causation is considered to be not spiritual at all, but physical, psychological etc.. This does not apply to East Africa.

The above three paragraphs attempt to illustrate to a Western readership that there are contextual differences in understanding of pneuma in East Africa as against in the West. They make explicit the suggestion that contextual knowledge is a pre-requisite to the ability to teach, preach and generally communicate God’s word correctly in East African contexts. It should be noted that the above make a clear link between language knowledge and contextual knowledge. How can a preacher know about the existence and nature of jachien (ghost) yamo (wind) and nyasaye (god) without a detailed knowledge of the language concerned (in this case Dholuo), which can only come from a knowledge of the context in which the language is used?

Neighbouring East African languages are presumably more closely related than are African with Western languages – that have developed in a totally different context. Hence there is a case to be made, I believe, for the advantage of having mission work and Bible teaching in East Africa carried out by people familiar with East African languages, and preferably using East African languages, even if the language concerned is not the mother-tongue of the people being reached.

In order to teach theology, including the theology of pneuma, clearly a person must understand that which they will seek to communicate. So an understanding of some accuracy of pneuma hagion as already understood by the people to be taught is needed as a pre-requisite to being able to teach about and of pneuma hagion. Particularly key, as mentioned above, is the relationship of pneuma hagion to questions of fate and providence.

It has been especially difficult for inhabitants of East Africa in the modern age to perceive the source of their fate clearly, because of attempts by the West (often in hand with the Gospel message) at determining the fate of East Africa’s people by other than natural means. That is – extraordinary amounts of financial aid, administrative assistance and scientific insights and equipment have often accompanied the Gospel message, resulting in confusion between the two. This, I suggest, has led to widespread confusion in pneumatology in East Africa that still needs considerable disentangling.[26]

There is, I suggest, a particular need for caution in considering the relationship between the power of pneuma hagion and the ‘power’ that arises from the use of science and technology. If this distinction is not made clearly then it can be very easy for East African people to expect pneuma hagion to do for them that which science and technology (still very much foreign visitors in much of East Africa) can do for Westerners. This is, of course, a basis for prosperity Gospel.

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2019

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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