A way I sought to serve future scholars for the church in Africa and beyond during my recent study leave was through writing. One project was a paper based on what I’ve learned from the past ten years of teaching the Bible in Zambia. It first describes how, in Africa’s theological schools, there’s a longing for biblical interpretation that’s truly African, that allows the Scripture to mean what it means to African communities. This is important for the post-colonial situation and for developing a theology that speaks to the African setting.
When someone says, “The Bible means what it means to our community,” we do need to proceed with care. Our Justo Mwale University Prof. D.T. Banda has spoken of the problem of “taming” interpretation “within the culture of the interpreter”. Banda claims that one can be a “prisoner” of how one’s own culture sees. He affirms that “culture must itself be converted” as it learns the gospel and appropriates its truth in a particular setting.
Also, if the Bible means whatever it means to our community, Rev. Muwowo of Chasefu Theological College says that “it would lead to the temptation of using scriptures for self-gain and putting the reader to be in control of the meaning of the text.” He has also warned that the experience of poverty can not only inform but also take control of how we understand the Bible, leading people to think the “prosperity gospel” is biblical.
So the question becomes: How do we encourage interpretations which are truly African, truly contextual, while also allowing Scripture to have its own voice and speak words which surprise and challenge us instead of only saying what our communities want to hear? We need interpretation to be truly contextual and truly biblical, so that what is taught and preached is not only relevant but also true to Scripture and transformational.
My recent paper is about a model for approaching the Bible and teaching interpretation that helps students use the literary context of Scripture so we’re not just hearing our own thoughts and desires when we interpret the Bible. The approach helps students take in more evidence from the text of Scripture, seeing relationships between parts and wholes within passages and books of the Bible. It’s also about empowering students to ask open and in-depth questions both of passages from the Bible and of their own ministry contexts, and then holding the text and their contexts in deeper conversation with one another. The result is students identifying more deeply with the Bible, so they see themselves and their community in and through Scripture.
During my sabbatical in Pasadena, when Fuller Seminary’s New Testament faculty learned about my writing projects, they asked me to share this paper with them and have a discussion. In response, they said that, though it’s written for Africa, it deals with analogous issues which they, too, are facing: How can a diverse student body interpret the Bible in a way that’s sensitive to diversity while also wrestling with what’s actually written in Scripture?
In a following discussion with other faculty members, they said the paper describes the sort of experiences students everywhere need: opportunities to see what’s really there in the Bible, to really observe how it witnesses to Jesus Christ and the gospel, and to make space for honest and deep conversation between Scripture and their diverse and particular backgrounds. These experiences help believers to weave an identity that is genuinely Christian while also being true to their specific background and community. The process seems crucial for thinking through what it means to live life with Scripture and preach the gospel faithfully in diverse contexts.
My hope is that the essay can serve future teachers in Africa and beyond who will, in turn, guide how future students handle the Bible. It will appear later this year in a book called Transforming Theology and Religion, as Supplement 32 of Acta Theologica, a journal of the Faculty of Theology of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa.