Appreciating Achebe

see image credit below

Nigerian Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) was a giant among African novelists. Winner of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize – just one of many literary awards he received – Achebe is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which as of 2008 had been translated into fifty languages.

As an American missionary who has lived for nearly 2 decades in four sub-Saharan African nations, I was anxious to see how Things Fall Apart would portray the interaction between his main character, Okonkwo (a rising leader among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria) and Western missionaries. It is here that Achebe succeeds by developing the contrast between Mr Brown, a gentle, listening missionary, and Mr Smith, a strident character who has no time to discover the religious worldview of the locals.

The strength of the book, however, is not in the final 1/3 but in the first 2/3. The reader is drawn into Okonkwo’s world with all its joys and messiness. The husband of three wives, he rules over his family with firm patriarchy, overachieving in-part because his own late father had been a good-for-nothing. Yet his world where eveyone has a role to fill and does so is spoiled when Okonkwo must acquiesce to a dark deed against his adopted son, Ikemufuna, accelerating his estrangement from his biological son, Nwoye, who later joins the Christians.

Things Fall Apart – though a novel – provides a fascinating study of the role of ancestors in the daily life of the people. Many Americans (with the possible exception of Mormons) can only trace their family tree back 2 or 3 generations. Our eyes are constantly on the future, the latest cell phone app or product innovation. Some wear the label “progressive” as a badge of honor. Yet Okonkwo symbolizes a conservative way of life, the communal backward glance over the shoulder, where existence is meaningful because one is part of an ongoing story that stretches back centuries. (The closest we’ve come as Westerners to appreciating this sub-Saharan African worldview is the 1970s TV miniseries, Roots).

Achebe catches the little details of life. It may be the portion of kola nut that a host lets fall to the ground, an offering to the ancestors who must eat before one’s guests do. Or it may be the egwugwu , the nine masked village men who represent the spirits of the ancestors and render judgment in disputes. In these ways and more, the ancestors are still part of the present life of the community. They are not dead and gone; rather, they are the living dead.

I experienced this outlook one day in a small village in southeastern Benin. We had purchased a small plot of land to build a church and it was time to sit with the owner and seal the deal. Not wanting to buy alcohol for the occasion  (our church is teetotalling), they graciously accepted softdrinks instead. As we sat around the circle, the owner opened his softdrink with his teeth, then poured out a small amount on the ground, an apparent libation to his ancestors.

The challenge for Christians is how to bring together two worldviews without compromising the integrity of Christian orthodoxy. Where does one draw the line? Can we legitimately honor the example of ancestors without veering into the dubious territory of imploring their favor? Hebrews 11 is one example of how this might be done, paying respect to them for how they remained faithful to God. At the same time, one cannot maintain a shrine to them or “personal gods”- as Achebe’s Okonkwo does – for surely this is to divinize the ancestors, a directly violation of Exodus 20:30:

“You must have no other gods before (besides) me” (CEB).

It’s easy from a distance to be critical of ancestor worship, forgetting that sometimes we Western followers of Christ  have been guilty of treading close to this line. Larnelle Harris sings these words in his song, “Friends in High Places“:

v. 1 – I’ve got hope when things look bad
And I can smile when I should be sad
I’ve got friends who lift me up when I’m feeling low
And they watch over me wherever I may go

Chorus

I’ve got friends in high places
So high but not so far away
I’ve got friends in high places
And I’m gonna be with them someday

How is the theology of these lyrics much different than Nigerians or Zambians invoking ancestors to protect and bless a family? Larnelle Harris’ song seems to be a misapplication of Hebrews 12:1 and the “cloud of witnesses” theology.

But back to Africa. Achebe’s novel was written in 1958, set in rural Nigeria. I wonder if the ancestral worldview is as dominant in urban Africa in 2017 where the Westernizing influences of social media are shaping new generations? Cultures change, and Africa is hardly immune.

Whether you’ve been to Africa or live elsewhere in the world, Achebe will help you move beyond the stereotypes of Africa that (unfortunately) are still all too common. For curing misconceptions, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a potent antidote and a reminder that all cultures have both merits and blindspots.

Image credit:

Stuart C. Shapiro [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Holiness for the MP3 generation- Part 3

dchUse the word “holiness” and – for some – memories of campmeetings and old-time revival preachers come to mind. Yet for those born since 2000, such things mean little. For a new generation more comfortable with social media than altar calls, new methods of communicating a timeless message are needed.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we looked at biblical and historical perspectives on holiness as described in Diane Leclerc’s Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010). In this the final installment, we turn to what Leclerc calls “Holiness Theology for Today.” Leclerc succeeds in mining the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage then bridging from the 18th century Methodist Revival and the 19th Century Holiness Movement to the 21st century, freshening up teachings on the Fall, full salvation, and five other holiness motifs (purity, perfection, power, character, and love).

Let us look at two themes from the latter portion of the book, namely, sin and God’s nature of holy love.

Sin

Chapter 6, “Created and Fallen Humanity,” addresses what may be termed the “problem” prior to later chapters exposing God’s gracious solution. Leclerc is correct to note the divergent definitions that Wesleyans and Calvinists use for “sin”:

…Wesleyans and Calvinists argue over the issue of sin. Their arguments are based on two very different understandings of what sin is. According to John Calvin, sin is falling short of the glory of God, or missing the mark. Thus any non-Godlike qualities or imperfections in humanity are considered sinful. Understandably then, a Calvinist could claim that we sin in thought, word, and deed daily. Most would simply say that we are sinful because we are not God (Leclerc, 160).

Leclerc does well to elucidate the reasoning behind the Calvinistic pessimism regarding sin. When seen in this way, it may be questioned whether John Wesley is very far from John Calvin on this point considering that Wesley admitted “infirmities” remain no matter how deep the sanctifying work of God in the human heart. Where we as Wesleyan-Holiness people sometimes go wrong, however, is excusing wrong attitudes or actions with the catch-all “I’m only human” rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to scrutinize and correct them.

 

Leclerc
Diane LeClerc

 

God’s nature as “holy love”

A second discussion that Leclerc engages is the question of God’s nature. Some – such as Ray Dunning and Ken Collins – have argued that the phrase “holy love” is an apt summary of God’s character. In Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007), every chapter title incorporates in the words “holy love,” and Collins quotes Wesley’s repeated use of the expression “holy love” to sustain his thesis. Thomas Jay Oord, however, has argued that the term “holy love” is tautological, a needless piling up of words. If the nature of holiness is love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31) – as Wesley taught- then saying that God is “holy love” adds nothing since “holy” is already contained in the idea of love.* (For more on love as the “core of holiness,” see Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love [Beacon Hill, 2005], 70-72).

It is apparent that Leclerc is familiar with the debate between these two theologians. To her credit, she attempts to steer a middle course:

‘God is love,’ John says simply and profoundly. We may modify God’s love with the word ‘holy.’ But this adds little to an understanding of God because by nature God’s love is holy. The modifier ‘holy’ does remind us, however, that God is beyond us as other than us. God is holy and always different from us in nature (Leclerc, 274).

Leclerc has put her finger on an important duality in the doctrine of God. The LORD is both “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6) and in Christ, God is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). There is both transcendence and immanence in God. To say that God is love underscores God’s immanence, but to say that God is holy love maintains in tension God’s transcendence and immanence, as does the whole tenor of Scripture. The truth of 1 John 4:8 must be balanced with passages like Isaiah 6, otherwise our view of God may become skewed.

Summing it all up

Though strong overall, one weakness of Discovering Christian Holiness is the lack of an index, a frustration for readers trying to locate specific passages in a hefty volume. Hopefully future editions will remedy this unfortunate omission. Yet whatever its shortcomings, Diane Leclerc has written an excellent book that will serve well both church and academy for years to come.

______

*from a conversation with Dr Oord

 

Holiness for the MP3 generation – Part 2

dchCicero in 46 BC observed: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness (Beacon Hill, 2010), Diane LeClerc examines the biblical foundation for holiness. (You can read my essay on Part 1 by clicking here). Now in Part 2, true to Cicero’s adage, she fills us in on the history of holiness doctrine, on “what happened” before our time, providing a panoramic view of the centuries. What emerges is strong evidence that – far from being a oddity – holiness has remained an important theological concern for thinkers across the ages.

The terrain LeClerc traverses is vast. In this short essay, we turn our attention to three selected themes (or persons) that she covers, namely: 1) holiness and asceticism; 2) Jerome, and 3) Mildred Bangs Wynkoop.

Holiness and asceticism

Western evangelicalism is recovering an appreciation for ancient faith, including the spiritual disciplines practiced by monks. In Chapter 3, LeClerc lists “radical asceticsim” among the “important elements in the development of an early theology of the holy” (p. 80). When persecution of Christians waned following the rise of Constantine in the early 4th century, treating one’s body harshly became an alternative to martyrdom.

Though LeClerc does not develop the theme too deeply, it is worthwhile to consider the rise of renewal movements historically. For example, in 18th century England, a non-demanding form of Christian faith held sway, similar to how being a Christian became socially advantageous under Constantine. The Methodist movement – like ancient monasticism – demanded much more of its adherents. There were rules of conduct, and if individuals refused to follow them, becoming what John Wesley called “disorderly walkers,” they were unceremoniously booted out of the Methodist societies. So while there were no early Methodist monks, the Methodist spirit certainly contained ascetic elements.

In Wesleyan-Holiness churches today, have we maintained ascetic elements, or have we “lowered the bar” much like in Constantine’s time? In her foreword to Gregory Crofford’s Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016), JoAnne Lyon observes: “I believe that one reason for overall declining membership in the church, particularly in the West, is that there is no challenge” (p. ix). LeClerc reminds us that monasticism was accompanied by a concern for rigourous living, a non-conformity to the broader societal dubious moral norms. While the danger of legalism is always present, we would do well to revisit what spiritual challenges we offer youth who have grown weary of the libertinism of our day.

Jerome (347-420 AD)

In addition to asceticism, LeClerc gives two pages to Jerome. Known mostly for his Scripture translation (the Latin Vulgate), I was fascinated to learn the strong influence Jerome had on early Christian views of marriage. Jerome came to teach that those who are married are in some sense less holy than those who live a life of celibacy.  LeClerc notes: “He (Jerome) praised countless women for leaving husbands and children behind so that they could be entirely devoted to God” (p. 96).

What are we to make of this? It is undeniable that Christians across history have had an uneasy relationship with sexuality. It is unfortunate that something holy made by God to be celebrated is instead denigrated, even in backhanded ways, like that of Jerome. Though most evangelicals today would deny that there is a hierarchy of sins, it is striking how often sexual sins get top billing and other sins that Scripture mentions far more frequently – such as neglecting the poor – receive little attention. It is time that we get over our fixation upon things sexual and recast the pursuit of holiness in far broader terms.

Mildred Bangs Wynkoop (1905-97)

In Chapter 4, LeClerc moves to a survey of important holiness figures from 1703 to 2000 AD. Beginning with John Wesley, she profiles a total of 32 men and women who have contributed subsantially to the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage. It is a source of pride for those in our tradition to see both genders on this list, yet gender aside, Mildred Bangs Wynkoop rightfully receives positive treatment by the author. LeClerc credits her for having “revolutionized the way the doctrine of holiness was articulated in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition” (p. 127). This revolution was conceptualizing holiness in terms of relationship rather than in terms of eradicating sin, a recovery of a neglected emphasis in the theology of John Wesley (1703-91), namely, holiness as loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).

mildred bangs wynkoop
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop

This took courage for Wynkoop at a time when most holiness preachers envisioned the “flesh” or the “sinful nature” as a thing, like a bad tooth that needed to be extracted, or a tree stump that God uproots. Wynkoop moved past these problematic subtantival conceptions and in their place taught a more dynamic way of picturing sanctification, as the ongoing pursuit of relationship. Summarizing Wynkoop’s theology, LeClerc concludes:

Our capacity for relationships, for loving relationships, is our God-given purpose and destiny. There is a God-designed holy manner for relating to God, to others, and even to ourselves. Sin distorts these relationships. God-derived love restores them. Holiness, then, is found most clearly when we love as God first loved us (p. 127).

Today’s holiness preachers take for granted the relational way of talking about God’s work in our lives, not realizing that Wynkoop ushered in a paradigm shift of immense proportions.

Summing it all up

Ascetism, Jerome, and Mildred Wynkoop are just three elements in Part 2 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc traces many others in two chapters that are a veritable smorgasbord of information about our holiness forebearers, each one worthy of a book-length treatment of their own. LeClerc does a good job of pointing us to the forest. Let the reader journey into the woods and discover the many trees.


 

Image credit (Mildred Bangs Wynkoop): Asbury E-Place

 

Holiness for the MP3 generation: Part 1

What is the central theme of the Bible? For the theological descendants of John Wesley (1703-91), the answer has always been holiness. Yet if the holiness legacy is to continue, each generation must articulate it in contemporary terms. Otherwise, the message risks becoming a dusty relic, like an old 78 record you’d find in your great-grandparents’ attic. You know it holds great music, but if anyone is going to hear it today, you have to translate it into MP3 format.

Diane LeClerc does for holiness theology what has been needed for some time. In Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010), LeClerc is a bridge between generations. Conversant with the way Wesleyan theologians have articulated our message in times gone by, she updates it for today’s readers. In so doing, she conserves what is best from our 18th, 19th, and 20th century heritage then converts it into a format more likely to communicate effectively in the 21st century.

Discovering Christian Holiness has become the go-to textbook for courses on the doctrine of holiness. It is not hard to understand why. At just over 300 pages, it is expansive enough to over all the major themes yet concise enough to not intimidate the newcomer. The book is divided into four parts:

Part 1 – Biblical Holiness

Part 2 – Holiness History

Part 3 – Holiness Theology for Today

Part 4 – Holy Living for a New Century

In the remainder of this essay, we will look at selected themes from the Introduction and Part 1. Subsequent essays will address the content of Parts 2-4.

Key elements of Wesleyan theology

In the Introduction, Diane LeClerc lays out five “key elements” of Wesleyan theology (see pp. 19-30):

  1. It arises out of the biography of John Wesley;
  2. It is soteriologically founded;
  3. It is thoroughly optimistic;
  4. It is practical;
  5. It is foundational to holiness theology

I especially appreciate the third point, sometimes called the “optimism of grace.” As a parent, I’ve noticed that children in general will live up (or down) to expectations. If we expect kindness  from our son or daughter, most of the time they will be kind, even if from time-to-time they are not. In the same way, if our preaching emphasizes that the Holy Spirit enables us to live above sin, we usually will, even if from time-to-time we stumble (1 John 2:1). LeClerc summarizes it well: “Sin need no longer reign in the heart. An outpouring of love into the heart ‘excludes sin.’ We can live truly holy lives” (p. 27).

While the five points provide a good summary, LeClerc follows conventional wisdom on John Wesley’s ministry in Georgia, calling it a “debacle” (p. 22). However, Geordan Hammond in his John Wesley in America (Oxford, 2014) provides a more postive picture, seeing Georgia as a “laboratory for implementing his views of primitive Christianity” (Preface, vii). It is doubtful whether Hammond’s research was available at the time LeClerc was writing Discovering Christian Holiness. Nonetheless, a second edition would do well to reference Hammond’s work as a balancing voice.

Leclerc
Diane LeClerc, Professor of Historical Theology, Northwest Nazarene University

The hermeneutic of love

How should Wesleyans interpret Scripture, especially the doctrine of holiness? We do so through the lens of love. LeClerc explains:

Other traditions might interpret God’s holiness in light of God’s power or God’s sovereignty or God’s justice. The Wesleyan-Holiness interpreter does not ignore these themes about God. But by interpreting God’s holiness in light of God’s love, he or she may reach different conclusions about God’s character than those reached by others (p. 54).

Having ruled out the possibility of not having an intepretive lens – or, as LeClerc calls it, being “just a Bible Christian” (p. 34) – LeClerc admits that employing love as a Wesleyan hermeneutical lens is “not without its difficulties” (p. 54). Currently, I am singing tenor in a production of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” One song celebrates that God “smote all the firstborn of Egypt.” Paul – a fellow tenor and fellow believer – whispered to me during one of the pauses: “Why would God do that?” The tradition of a “death angel” sometimes is invoked, but Handel was correct: It was not an intermediary that did God’s bloody bidding; it was God himself who directly acted (Exodus 12:29). For these reasons, I question whether love by itself is sufficient as a hermeneutical lens. In stories like the killing of the firstborn of Egyptians, some other characteristic in God’s nature is in view. One may forgive Calvinists for thinking love is too narrow a hermeneutic even if Wesleyans likewise charge that sovereignty has the same weakness. For this reason, it is useful to maintain the adjective “holy” when describing the essence of God as holy love, as do Wesleyan theologians Ray Dunning and Ken Collins. It is in the phrase “holy love” that the importance of God’s honor comes into view, a key consideration in many non-Western cultures that speaking only of “love” does not seem to encompass.

Holiness as the “presence of the good”

In a section entitled “New Testament Images of Holiness,” LeClerc describes holiness in the New Testament as “holistic.” By this she means that “holiness is not just the absence of sin but also the presence of the good. The holy person, then, acts in love and does not simply avoid the unholy” (p. 64). This insight first came home to me in Ken Abram’s book, Positive Holiness: Enjoy the Freedom of Holiness (1988). In short, holiness is not just what I don’t do; more importantly, it is what I do. Some – such as Old Testament scholar Dwight Swanson – have gone further, underscoring the infectious nature of holiness in the New Testament. Whereas in the Old Testament individuals withdrew in order to avoid having their holiness in some way contaminated, in the New Testament – such as when Jesus heals the leper (Matthew 8:1-4) – the direction is inverted; it is cleanness that “infects” uncleanness. LeClerc’s comment about holiness being the “presence of the good” is in-line with Swanson’s observation, a recognition that any holiness sermon that never gets to the positive side of the ledger is incomplete.

Passages “pushed beyond their limits”

In Chapter 2 – “The Whole Holy Tenor of Scripture” – LeClerc does a masterful job. In the space of just 23 pages, she paints the broad panorama of holiness in both Testaments. However, in the middle of the presentation, she asks: “Are there any passages that have been pushed beyond their limits in attempt to support a specific theology of sanctification?” (p. 63). She subsequently does name a few Scripture portions that have been variously intepreted, such as Romans 6-8 and the Spirit baptism passages in Acts. However, I could find nowhere where LeClerc corrects exaggerated interpretations. It’s possible that she wrote something that was subsequently cut by the editor. In any case, the question ends up unnecessarily raising hopes that are then unfulfilled.

Summing it all up

Preachers who are looking for study material for holiness sermons will find a rich deposit in Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc succeeds at both introducing the topic of the book and – by addressing what the Bible has to say about holiness – accentuates that Wesleyan-Holiness doctrine first-and-foremost is based upon Scripture. I look forward to reading the remaining parts of the book and reviewing them for my readers.

O Susanna!

susanna-wesleyFor readers desiring an in-depth portrait of the “Mother of Methodism,” look no further than John A. Newton’s Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism, 2nd ed. (London: Epworth, 2002). An update of the 1968 original, Newton brings to life the mother of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s co-founders. From her days as the daughter (and one of 25 children!) of nonconformist London minister, Dr. Samuel Annesley, to her decision at 13 to leave nonconformity and join the Church of England, to her rocky marriage to Samuel Wesley and difficult life in Epworth, Newton paints a detailed portrait of the triumphs and travails of a remarkable woman.

John Newton adds texture to a well-known story. When Samuel and Susanna split over different views on who was the rightful king of England, Samuel announced: “If we have two kings, we must have two beds” (p. 87). Most other treatments of the Wesleys include this detail, then jump to the reconciliation a year later, after which John Wesley was born. Yet Newton digs deeper, adding another six pages of context. In the end, Samuel ends up looking impetuous for having stormed off to London, a conclusion that seems well-supported by the additional detail he provides surrounding the incident.

Of particular interest is chapter 4, “A Mother in Israel.” Here, Newton opens the doors to the Epworth rectory, bringing us into the daily life of the burgeoning Wesley family. For a woman who had grown up in the relative luxury of Dr. Annesley’s London home, the near penury of the Epworth parish must have been a bitter pill. In a rare moment of candor, when asked by the Archbishop of York whether she and her family had ever lacked bread, she replied (p. 98):

My Lord, I will freely own to your grace that, strictly speaking, I never did want bread. But then, I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after, as has often made it very unpleasant to me. And I think to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all!

There is no question that Susanna’s Wesley life was difficult. Despite the hardships, she successfully raised 7 children into adulthood, out of 19 born to her and her husband. (Infant mortality claimed many lives in 18th century England). Newton’s biography illuminates the character of one with an abiding faith in God, intellectual curiosity, and strong pastoral gifts (though squelched by the prejudices of the day).

If there is a weakness in Newton’s book, it is that it borders on making Susanna Wesley a saint. Unlike recent research on John Wesley that has revealed some of his warts, thus humanizing him, there is no such counterbalancing material in Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism unless one reckons her strong will as pigheadedness. Perhaps new light will one day emerge from the many neglected boxes of archives in the Methodist collection at the John Rylands library in Manchester. A fuller account that includes foibles would do nothing to detract from the respect given to Mrs. Wesley but help give a more realistic (and endearing) accounting.

This consideration aside, I enjoyed Newton’s biography of Susanna Wesley. She was unquestionably a strong woman who contributed to the birth of a movement that changed the world. For those looking for a solid (though imperfect) biography, I recommend it.

An excellent summary of Wesleyan theology

essential-beliefsMark Maddix and Diane LeClerc have done it again. Just two years after collaborating as co-editors of Essential Church: A Wesleyan Ecclesiology (Beacon Hill, 2014), they’ve overseen the production (also by Beacon) of Essential Beliefs: A Wesleyan Primer (2016), a welcome volume that will fill an important niche for those desiring a concise but comprehensive introduction to Wesleyan theology.

The term “primer” is well-chosen. Each of the 19 chapters in the 159 page book serves as an introduction to an important doctrinal topic. Organized in a traditional format, the five sections move the reader from 1) the sources and method of theology, to 2) God as theology’s subject, then 3) creation/humanity/sin, followed by  4) the nature of forgiveness and sanctification, and ending with 5) the church’s “meaning, purpose, and hope,” i.e. ecclesiology and eschatology. By book’s close, the careful reader will have taken in the panoroma of Wesleyan theology and – thanks to the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter – confidently be able to double back to pursue smaller trails that fork off from the main path.

The editors assigned the writing of chapters out to a crop of younger, emerging scholars, both male and female (Essential Beliefs, 16). This was a good decision, giving the book a freshness and sensitivity to more recent emphases, including a relational reading of sanctification. Also commendable is that not all writers were from North America, with solid chapters contributed by an Austalian, Zimbawean, Brit, and Filipino.

Mark Maddix’s chapter on spiritual growth contains a sentence that caught my attention. Referring to Communion, he observes: “Christians recognize that as they breathe in through participation in Word and Table, they are healed, empowered, and equipped to breathe out in God’s mission in the world” (Essential Beliefs, 122). This is a powerful metaphor that applies not only to Eucharist but to many other discipleship aspects of church life, including Christian education, preaching, and participation in small groups. Not having read Essential Beliefs until this week (December 2016), it’s fascinating that his breathing in/breathing out image is exactly what I have developed at greater length in Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016) as the concept of “spiritual respiraton.” Maddix’s sentence is a confirmation that the Holy Spirit is always speaking to the church in sundry locations, yet somehow moving us together in the same direction.

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A brew that is true?

Agbonkhiameghe Emmanuel Orobator, SJ
Agbonkhiameghe Emmanuel Orobator, SJ

When I first drank coffee, let’s be honest: I hated the taste. The only way I could enjoy it was if I doctored  it with copious amounts of sugar and cream. Then, over time, I wanted more coffee and fewer additives. What happened? The taste grew on me.

As with coffee, so with theology. Having read Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Orbis: 2008, Kindle edition), I really wanted to like it. After all, he is doing what I want my own Kenyan students to do, not to parrot theology seen through a Western lens but to contextualize theology for their own setting. But at least on a first read-through, I’m reminded of coffee. I may need some time for the taste to grow on me.

Let’s consider a positive aspect of Theology Brewed in an African Pot, namely, the strong chapter on ecclesiology. As a Wesleyan, I am closer in some ways to Orobator’s Roman Catholicism than a Baptist or Presbyterian would be. Both Wesleyans and Catholics emphasize the importance of holiness. Moreover, this holiness is never meant to be a solitary pursuit. John Wesley (1703-91) refused to advocate a kind of faith that was individualistic. Instead, he organized his followers into small groups for encouragement and accountability. In the same way, Orobator develops the nexus between the corporate emphasis of Catholicism as the people of God and the solidarity of African cultures, where “I am because we are.”  Church is not just a loose organization of individuals; rather, Church is family. He clarifies (locations 1465-1470):

In many parts of Africa, family is an important value and dimension of religious, socio-cultural, political, and economic life. Social systems in Africa pivot on the family. When Vatican II declares that the church is the people of God and a communion, we understand this to mean that within the context of the African Christian community, the church is family. Therefore, the corresponding and appropriate model of the local church in Africa is Church as Family of God.

In the Nazarene congregation where I grew up, our pastor had a time in the service where we would sing the Gaither standby, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” While we sang it, we’d shake hands with others around us. Indeed, as I’ve traveled the world, the church as my extended family has been a comfort, an anchor when my life has been mostly sail. So when Orobator speaks of the church in this way, it resonates with my own heart, a reminder that the metaphor of the Church as family is not reserved just for African Christians. It’s an idea that resonates with many cultures on diverse continents.

While I appreciate Orobator’s ecclesiology, I cannot say the same about his view of the ancestors. Chapter 9 – “Our Fathers and Mothers Who Art in Heaven” – presents the conception of African Traditonal Religion (ATR) re. the ancestors as compatible with Christian faith, but is it? Some of what he claims is innocuous enough, such as the value of recounting the stories of those who have gone before us, what he calls the “communion of saints” (location 1865). Where he veers into dubious territory is when speaking of the “living dead” (ancestors) as protecting us (location 1889, emphasis added):

…Through the active presence of the living dead, the community grows qualitatively, because, as ancestors, they have only one duty: to protect the lives of their progeny. In many different ways we celebrate them. We rejoice in their presence.

Likewise, an ancestor is for Orobator an “intercessor,” taking petitions to a “Supreme Being” (location 1899). Roman Catholicism – through its cult of Mary and the other saints – is amenable to those like Orobator who want to maintain a place for the ancestors that goes beyond verbal honor to believing that ancestors are active in our daily lives.

Yet is the idea of ancestors as protectors and intercessors biblical? When Paul was caught in a storm, he did not ask an ancestor to intercede with God for their protection. Rather, God sent an angel to Paul who re-assured him that he and the others in the ship would be spared. “Be encouraged, men! I have faith in God that it will be exactly as he told me” (Acts 27:25 CEB). It is an angel in this instance (not an ancestor) who acts as a messenger of God, as a go-between, assuring him of God’s protection. Yet even here, we must be careful not to be distracted by the angel. Prayer is never directed to angels by Paul in any of his letters; rather, his prayers are addressed directly to God. (Ephesians 3:14-21 is one example). Intercession is the role neither of ancestors nor of angels. Rather, intercession is lodged squarely in the heart of the Trinity. Jesus is our High Priest and intercedes for us (Hebrews 7:25). Likewise, the Holy Spirit interecedes with the Father, even groaning on our behalf (Romans 8:26), a sure sign of his loving concern.

By attempting to reconcile Christian faith and the cult of the ancestors, Orobator has arguably opened a door to syncretism, an amalgam of religious worldviews that cannot mix and remain consistent with biblical faith. His may be a theology brewed in an African pot, but can the brew be healthy when it has been compromised in this way?

Orobator should be commended for wrestling with his own religious heritage passed down to him from his ancestors and the variety of Christian faith that as a young man he chose to follow. Indeed, we all must hammer out our own faith and do our best to see where our own culture of origin has made us blind to important aspects of the Bible. Theology, after all, is not only brewed in African pots. It has also historically been brewed in German, British, and American pots, among others. The challenge for any of us is to accept the critique of those who stand outside our culture. They can sometimes help us discern in the theological brew that we serve up distasteful elements to which we are oblivious.

By reading Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot, the reader discovers how theological contextualization can be an effective, positive impetus for evangelization. On the other hand, the book is simultaneously a cautionary tale of the doctrinal compromise that can be the unwitting result of the desire to make the Gospel more appealing in any given setting. May God continue to give us wisdom as we walk together as brothers and sisters in Christ, engaging this essential but delicate task.