How do Africans read the Bible?
This weekend I started Philip Jenkins’ fantastic (and very readable) The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. He traces the issues that have divided the global Christian world in modern times: gender, sexual morality and homosexuality, and looking for reasons for why ‘the West’ and the ‘Global South’ seem to be at such odds. When it comes to reading the Bible, what is it about African approaches that seem so literalistic to westerners? Why is it that Africans think westerners don’t care about the Bible?
Origin of the Text
Orthodox Christians have long maintained that the Bible is both a human word and a divine word. Its humanity means we can consider context (‘what did this mean to its original readers?’) but it also distances us from the text (‘to them, for us’). For many liberals, this is the point at which they dismiss the authority of the Bible – it’s merely an interesting artifact of its time.
Africans, on the other hand, have a much greater sense of the immediacy of a text, of it being God’s word to them. If you treat the Bible as a human text, you end up asking questions about where it came from (Jewish culture? western missionaries?) and that raises questions about why an African should view it as authoritative for them. To an African mind, to treat the Bible as a human text is to disregard the God who sent it.
And the idea of God sending it is very important. For many African cultures, text came as part of the colonial package. So what sets the Bible as text apart from any other text – say, the law documents that many governments use to oppress their people? It’s the sender. This accounts for the mystical (or, to western minds, magical) attitude that many Africans appear to have towards the Bible.
An encounter with the text
Because this sense of the text’s power and authority is so strong, the idea of dryly evaluating it smacks of disrespect. The Bible is not there to be evaluated so much as to be obeyed. In one Zimbabwean church where a passage was expounded verse by verse, the reader stood with the preacher at all times, his visual prominence emphasising the authority of the written word and the preacher’s accountability to it.
Because the text is authoritative, that ought to be conveyed in its reading. ‘Readings should have an incantatory quality, with presenters making full use of body language and vocal tones.’ At first this seems counter-intuitive to western minds. Does that just mean the most captivating reader or impressive preacher is viewed as the most authoritative? But for an African, it’s unthinkable that, if you believed in the authority of the text, you wouldn’t bring that word as strongly as you possibly could, using every emphatic tool available.
How to discuss a text
None of the above is to say that Africans do not think about doctrine or the meaning of a text. However, discussion may take place by different means, such as storytelling. We westerners relegate storytelling to reproduction and focus on accuracy: did the details match the written text? For more oral cultures, though, storytelling is the site of discussion of a text: the interpretation of a text occurs in its telling. While there are some excellent Bible commentaries written by Africans, more common especially at a popular level, is to devise a skit that brings out a particular aspect. Performance of the Bible rather than evaluation of it becomes the means by which possible meanings are explored.
An example from Tanzania
There’s a Tanzanian hymn called ‘Kisha Nikaona’ (Then I Saw). It quotes Revelation 20:1-2 about the angel descending from heaven to lock up the ancient dragon and to this the congregation responds:
It was the time when they locked him up for a thousand years
That real devil and Satan who so tricks people on earth today
Now my brother/sister, frustrate his tricks today
Truly that snake has no power over us again
You can see the sense of immediacy there, can’t you? Whatever the discussion about the meaning of timing in Revelation, there’s relevance here for the congregation.
You can hear the authority: Christians are exhorted, even commanded, to act on the basis of this text!
You can see the discussion: this song carries its own interpretation of the text.