Posted in book reviews

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.

Posted in reflections

Confessions of a Protestant lost in a sea of Catholicism

giotto_crucifixMy friend, Jim, pastored in small-town Missouri. “Greg,” he once confided, “you can’t swing a dead cat in my town without hitting a Baptist.” Apart from whether dead-cat swinging is advisable, I understood what he meant. What is true in Missouri is even more pronounced in Oklahoma (my adopted state), where there are not just Baptists but as many choices of church “flavors” as ice cream flavors at Coldstone Creamery.

Yet my roots are in the Northeast, where most of my growing up years were in Rochester, New York. While Syracuse is dominated by the Irish, Rochester and Buffalo were more heavily settled by Italian immigrants. In my high school, there were wonderful Italian last names like Dallasandro, Cervone, and Arcuri, to name a few. With a strange, decidedly un-Italian name like Crofford, at times it seemed like I was one of the few whose last name didn’t end with an “i,” “o,” or “e.”

Italian ancestry brought with it Roman Catholicism. In elementary school, the cafeteria never served hamburgers on Fridays, only fish sticks, a concession to old-school Catholicism and its fasting practices that endured in the early 70s, Vatican II notwithstanding. On the bus, students talked about their Saturday “religion” classes and later about taking “first communion” or “confirmation.” In 10th grade chemistry, I chatted with my friend, Greg, who asked me what I wanted to do with my life. “I’m going to be a pastor,” I answered. Shocked, he asked: “But don’t you want to get married and have children?” Since Roman Catholic priests (pastors) are celibate, he couldn’t comprehend that as a Protestant I could purse the ministry and  have a family.

As I look back on my public school experience, I realize that in many ways I was a Protestant lost in a sea of Catholicism.

As incredible as it now seems, as a child I believed that Catholics were all bound for hell. Maybe it was the Chick Tract that said the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Perhaps it was a stray comment here-and-there from adults, asking prayer for good Catholic church attending individuals, that they would be “saved.” Whoever it was that wrote on the wet cement of my young mind, the etching soon hardened.  We were “in” and they were “out.” Others told me that we should “have a burden for the lost,” that we should pray and “witness” to them. Throughout 3rd grade, I was determined to tell my friends at school about  Jesus, but at the end of the day, always felt guilty that I hadn’t had the courage to do so.

High school ended, and I’ve never gone back. College at one of the liberal arts institutions sponsored by my denomination meant I was no longer religiously isolated. Rather, I was one of the “birds of a feather who flock together,” surrounded by individuals of like faith. Later years brought marriage, family, and work as a pastor and missionary in my denomination.

As I’ve grown older, I’m able to reflect more objectively on my experience as a lonely Protestant. Here are some of the things I’ve concluded:

1. I needlessly distanced myself from my peers. I wonder how many friendships never blossomed because I was convinced in some way that I couldn’t articulate at the time that association = religious compromise? When Catholic girls flirted with me, I didn’t flirt back, but how could I tell them it wasn’t because they weren’t pretty but because they were Catholic? In retrospect, my aloofness was overkill.

2. Some of my prejudices are inherited. As one in the Anglican/Methodist tradition, I was surprised to find anti-Catholic sentiments in the writings of two of my heroes, John and Charles Wesley. They speak of “Papism” as shorthand for their distaste of all things Roman. Some of that bigotry has been passed down to their ecclesiastical descendants, myself included, and we would do well to challenge it.

3. Roman Catholics love the Church. Whereas my own tradition does well speaking of the importance of being born again, being “saved,” and having a relationship with Jesus Christ, too many of the “saved” don’t have a good grasp of how church fits into the scheme. Sadly, faith then becomes an individualistic endeavor. On the other hand, Roman Catholics by-and-large respect the importance of the Church as the community of faith. Sure, they can be openly critical of it and sometimes will only attend a few times a year (as do some Protestants), but when outsiders attack the Church, watch out! They circle the wagons. Church is not a “tack on” for the Catholic; it is at the center of their faith, and there is something alluring about that. When former Catholics join Protestant churches, I’ve noticed that they often conserve their high view of the Church. What Protestant pastor isn’t thrilled to have loyal members like that?

4. The liturgy and architecture point us Godward. Does the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus during Eucharist? That’s a hard one for me to swallow, yet there is a majesty to the old rituals of Catholic worship that make the evangelical fad of “seeker sensitive” worship seem shallow by comparison. Protestant church buildings – at least lately – look more like office complexes. There is something worshipful, on the other hand, about a vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, and pews that are bolted down. Cathlolic architecture says: “Do you need a place for dinners? That’s in the adjoining building. This space is for worship, and that’s enough.”

5. Socially, Roman Catholics care about many of the things I care about. Family is vital, and abortion is to be avoided. These two conservative tenets overlap with the thinking of many Protestant evangelicals.

6. I like Pope Francis. His tenure has started off with him garnering respect from a wide spectrum of Christian leaders as he lives a simple life and radiates love to all with whom he comes in contact.

Purposely, this essay has not dwelt upon where Roman Catholicism and Protestantism part ways. That list includes the place of Mary and the saints, but I have learned that non-adherence to the overall beliefs/practices of a particular religious group does not mean that we must paint with a broad brush, calling what is good, bad. We can celebrate the ways that God is working in other groups, and hope that they will in-turn celebrate the ways that God is working among us, warts and all.

Jesus said to Peter in John 21 not to worry about the so-called “Beloved Disciple,” that he was not Peter’s concern. Instead, he simply said to Peter: “You must follow me.” As Christians, let us affirm one another where we can, but most importantly, keep our eyes upon the One whom we are following. Doing that, how can we go wrong?


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