World Christianity 5: Old and New Testaments

Continuing discussion of Philip Jenkins’ fascinating book, The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South.

Chapter 3 is ‘Old and New’ and explores the special relationship African Christians in particular have with the Old Testament.

The big point here is how in Africa, the OT is accorded a much higher respect and authority than in Western Christianity.

The obvious irony – the very things that make the ‘primitive’ OT so popular in Africa are the very things that make Western Christians uncomfortable.

Starts with a nice quote:

If present day Africans still find it difficult to be at home with the Old Testament, they might need to watch out to see if they have not lost their Africanness in one way or the other [Madipoane Masenya]

Jenkins discusses the many ‘resonances’ the OT world has to the African one.

In Genesis 1-12, African Christians find deep connections in the story of the origin of the tribe, the promise of land, sacrifice at an altar, the ever-present threat of famine, nomadism vs agriculturalism, slavery and so on.

Jenkins notes how these ‘primitive’ themes are found beyond Genesis – in 1 Samuel scholars have found over 30 ‘African resonances’ – including tribal conflict, a visit to a seer, possession by spirits, men aspiring to be buried with their fathers.

One of the strongest ‘African’ themes of the OT is idolatry. Worship of false gods and the allure of pagan religions are all too real. Texts like Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 serves as a model story for rejection and resistence to pagan traditions and witchcraft.

Another is the closeness many African Christians feel for sacred places. The OT has many landmarks – and many African independent churches incorporate sacred places within their faith for pilgrimage and worship – mountains,  beaches, special landmarks.

In terms of mission, many African and Asian Christians readily connect with Paul’s missionary practice in Acts 17 of speaking of an ‘unknown God’. Acts is popular, especially in how it tells the story of how the Gentiles are included within the people of God without losing their identity and culture.

Sacrifice is major resonance. The book of Hebrews is seen by many as a profoundly African book because of how it speaks to a culture familiar with sacrifice – an idea repulsive to most western Christians.

Reminds me of a story a student, Michael Briggs, told me of a mission trip of Urban Junction to Uganda he helped lead last year. The group visited a village and, as guests, were given the honour of killing the goat for dinner. Michael got the job because no-one else could face it!  While not a sacrifice, same idea.

More resonances include the African respect and acceptance of prophetic utterances and visions. Daniel and Revelation are hugely popular books. Pentecostalism of course is huge in Africa.

Yet more resonances include the OT wisdom traditions, especially those found in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Such wisdom is given deep respect as being attached to the wisdom of the elders, yet in Western Christianity wisdom literature seems outdated and is marginalised.

And in keeping with this contrast it is the letter of James, more than any other NT book, that enjoys huge popularity in Africa. Famously an ‘epistle of straw’ for Luther, James’ is wisdom-type literature, practically addressing issues of direct relevance to African Christians – for example, a place for the poor and judgement on the rich.

And a final resonance is faith and politics. Jenkins says that in Asia and Africa, a common assumption is that states, no less than individuals, are to be open to receive and live by the word of God. The OT lends credence to the notion of a godly nation. Such themes lend themselves to ideas of communal and national righteousness, and associated national judgement if the nation turns its back on God.

A couple of questions come to mind:

Why is the OT largely not read and not valued in the western Church?

How has the comparison of how many Africans read the OT, shown how each of us reads the Bible with ‘glasses’ on that help us to ‘see’ some things very clearly yet makes us ‘blind’ to things that are crystal clear to others?

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