Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ancient Text, Present Context

I haven’t blogged in quite a while so I decided that the best way for me to return to blogging would be to attempt to generate a discussion on something that I have strong feelings about: “walking in the Spirit.” I know, I know; before you tune out claiming that I’m speaking a foreign language, let me clarify my intent a little further. I recently had an intriguing discussion with a relative of mine about this very subject, and we appeared to be on opposing sides of the argument until the very end. Even then, it seems that without actually saying it, we both agreed to disagree on certain points of departure.

I don’t know about you, but as a young Christian I was fed an extremely confusing but steady diet of the notion that to walk in the Spirit meant that everything we did as Christians would be prompted only after significant and meaningful time spent in prayer followed by a clear and concise “word” from the Lord. This idea gave impetus to many a young man who desired a certain… shall we say, attractive young woman. He would walk up to her and tell her that God had revealed to him in prayer that she was destined to be his wife. Now before you get your knickers in a twist, I daresay God certainly makes known to you whom you should marry (He most definitely did to me), but it isn’t necessarily just because you prayed and sent out a fleece. It also isn’t a carte blanche cardinal rule that because you’ve supposedly “heard from God” your proposed spouse accepts without question that you must be right.

But I don’t want to trivialize the larger point I’m trying to make by reducing it to the overly simplistic idea behind a marriage proposal. You see, my relative suggested that all too often, Western Christianity takes far too much of a pragmatic approach to our relationship with God. In other words we tend to take a more cerebral approach to solving our problems based on present conditions rather than accepting and trusting the principles espoused by the Scriptures. I, on the other hand, contended that in Africa in general and in Nigeria specifically, we are much too pedantic – giving too much attention to formal rules and small details at the expense of the broader picture - in our interpretation and application of the Scriptures without making room for the cultural, human, and historical context. Our discussion cited some more personal examples, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll speak to some more general thoughts and ideas.

For example, many Nigerian denominations would suggest that for a woman to wear makeup, pants (trousers), or leave her hair uncovered in public worship is completely sinful and unbiblical. They contend that the Scriptures emphatically state that women should not concern themselves with the outward adorning of their bodies, and neither should they wear men’s clothing. They conveniently ignore the fact that back in the historical days of the Bible, men didn’t wear trousers, so how they make the historical interpretation that the Scriptures are referring to trousers when it talks about men’s clothing, is beyond me. In fact, in a rather gruesome and perverse interpretation of Scriptures, a Nigerian “prophet” who shall remain nameless, actually claimed that an amazing young female pastor who died in a horrific plane crash was killed because she wore mini-skirts and dressed too enticingly. Amazingly, this apparent prophet is actually blind!

That brand of theology, especially framed in language that suggests one is speaking for God, is not only unattractive but lethal! Culturally Nigerians can tend to be overly didactic in our interpretation of the Bible. We are given to extremely “eager” and unyielding convictions, without allowing for the fact that we might be wrong. Now I understand that this is a trait that is common with any thing that you become an expert at, and clearly as we grow in our faith we become experts at interpreting and understanding the Bible. When a group of software developers get together, they speak a language that is wholly foreign to the majority of us outside of that profession and consequently shut out any possibility of a useful interchange. The same may be said for a group of doctors, pilots, and whatever else you study and become an expert at.

Now, while this concept of experts speaking their own language may be useful for those professions when they are talking to one another, it is completely untenable for Christianity since our language and interpretation of the message must be designed to speak to the lives of people right where they are. This really strengthens the notion that we are experiments in translation trying to communicate an ancient text in a present context. I realize that there are those who will quickly suggest that I’m advocating a “dumbing” down of the message, but in actual fact all I’m saying is that we need to talk about Biblical concepts in a language that is understood by the people that we’re supposedly trying to reach with the message. I'll conclude my thoughts on this subject on Monday. Meanwhile, what are your thougths about this subject.


Ronke said...

Joseph, the optically challenged prophet has since spoken out in clear terms that he never died, went to heaven nor claimed to have seen a vision of the late female pastor in hell. It appears the entire story was cooked up by mischief makers who would put the church at logger heads. They certainly did that for a season!