There’s a discussion going on among western theologians at the moment about what the gospel is. We’ve written bits and pieces on a few of the players here, here and here. It’s all about trying to figure out what the essence of the gospel message is: be reconciled to God; Jesus Christ is King; have your sins forgiven, etc. Arthur and I are always looking to have our western theological perspective enhanced by Tanzanians, and to learn from them, so I asked a theologian friend, ‘If you could summarise the gospel in 1 sentence, what would you say?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Why would I want to do that?‘
I gave some background on the discussion, and he was aware of the issues, but just didn’t see the point in having the conversation because:
- Why try to work out one sentence – aren’t you going to have more than one sentence to say to someone? Surely there will be multiple conversations!
- Why try to come up with a sentence when you don’t know who you’re speaking to? How can you tailor it for what they need to hear?
- Why would you want to teach the essence? Don’t you want to teach the whole truth?
- Why are you so interested in an abstract theological sentence? What does this look like in practice?
We in the west are interested in categorising and summarising (like writing a blog to process it all!) We like to get down to what is essential, and we feel that gives us a framework, a prism to help us clarify the rest of our theological thought. I suspect we feel this makes things less messy, especially cross-culturally, because at least that essential message will be the same across cultures. You could call it a deductive approach: taking the principle and applying it.
But Tanzanians are much more inductive in their thought. They are much more likely to work from practical theology out, than systematic theology in. By and large, they give less energy to questions like ‘what is the gospel?’, and more attention to ‘what does the Bible say about leadership, or poverty, or personhood?’ In general, they are impatient with questions that don’t seem to have immediate practical relevance. It’s not that they’re opposed to key points – Tanzanians are just as annoyed with ramblers as anyone else – but they don’t think of theology as uncontextualised, or even able to be extracted from its context.
I reckon the ‘what is the gospel?’ discussion is an important one for the west, with a number of important practical implications for the western church, but it was humbling to see once again that my issues are not necessarily Tanzanian issues. While my theological background may have something to offer here, the places the west (including me!) has put its energy may not be the most pertinent ones in this context.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.