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AFRICAN THEOLOGY/IES: A CONTEMPORARY MOSAICAL APPROACH
By DOROTHY BEA AKOTO-ABUTIATE
AuthorHouse LLCCopyright © 2014 [Durable] Dorothy BEA Akoto-Abutiate
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HEARING SCRIPTURE IN AFRICAN CONTEXTS: A HERMENEUTIC OF GRAFTING
This Chapter was first presented at the American Association of Baptist Scholars (AABS)/ Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) annual meetings in Washington, DC, U.S.A. in November, 2006. The title of the article in the AABS panel presentation was "Hearing Scripture in African Contexts: Reading the Bible with African Spectacles." This article was later published in the South African Journal of Old Testament Essays (JOTE) 20/2 (2007), 283-306, with a modified title, "Hearing Scripture in African Contexts: A Hermeneutic of Grafting" with the sub-title coined by the present author in 2004. The article proposes that the hearing and interpretation of scripture in African contexts is similar to the agricultural practice of grafting in which a piece of the Western scriptural (received text) plant is spliced into the already existing mature African cultural tree (African Traditional Religion), producing a hybridized fruit with a unique flavor different from both the Western received text and the African Traditional Religion. The article is reproduced and presented here with only slight modifications.
The current trend in biblical interpretation is characterized by a cacophony of voices. Tradition-historical critical methods with their positivistic and subjective stances and paradigms no longer seem to provide adequate answers to what the biblical text means for today. Age-long paradigms seem to have collapsed, widening the circle to include a variety of voices, especially those from the margins in biblical interpretation. The excessive patriarchal, political, economic and social entrenchment of the text of the Bible has also proved to be exclusivist of a vast arena of adherents to the Bible. Furthermore, the biblical text has been found in many regards to be ethically or morally problematic as far as issues of justice are concerned. Hearing and reading scripture, which are interpretative enterprises, have taken on a variety of forms and African Biblical scholars have also made vast contributions showing their understanding of biblical interpretation over the years. Here, a "hermeneutic of grating" is offered as a metaphor for the interpretation of the Bible in Africa in general but more specifically among the Ewe peoples of Southeastern Ghana. This metaphor, though is intended for the African/Ewe context, could be applied to the interpretation of the Bible in other cultural contexts other than that of the Ewe peoples.
In light of the foregoing, many hermeneutical winds of biblical interpretation have blown and continue to blow across the globe in the field of biblical studies in both academia and in the faith community (i.e., the church and synagogue). Some of these winds, which are seen in the 17th century work of Baruch (Benedict de Spinoza, 1632-1677), Julius Wellhausen's 18th century work, the early 30s and 50s Theologies of the Old Testament offered by Walther Eichrodt, Gerhard von Rad and others and continue into the 21st century and forward, warrant the continued question, "How should scripture be read and heard in various contexts?" This question becomes pertinent with Leo Perdue's asserted "collapse of history" and subsequent "reconstruction of theology." It is also seen in Jacques Derrida's "deconstructionism," Richard Rorty's "non-foundationalism," Brevard Childs' canonical "anti-foundationalism," the varieties of "womanism," exhibited by Katie Geneva Cannon and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and others, Phyllis Trible's rhetorical expression of "feminism" and other hermeneutical interpretations of the Bible, which include also the Latin American Liberation and mujerista, the Asian minjung and other theologies. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, with its vigorous rationalism, colonialism, postcolonialism, modernism, postmodernism, poststructuralism and other "posts-," room has been created to hear scripture amid a cacophony of voices. These voices include those of liberals and conservatives, minimalists and maximalists, revisionist, liberationists, feminists, womanists, and other minorities. In the midst of this turbulence, "Hearing Scripture in African Contexts," is very appropriate. An Ewe proverb from Southeastern Ghana, West Africa says, Nunya adidoe, asi metu ne o. This literally, means, Knowledge is a baobab tree. No one person can embrace it all alone. This proverb metaphorically, captures the ongoing methodologies of biblical interpretation vividly. One cannot deny the immense contributions to this field of learning since the Reformation until this postmodern era. Biblical interpretation is like the baobab tree, which no one scholar/group of scholars or any human society, regardless of socio-political, economic, religious or hegemonic orientation, has been and probably never will be able to embrace it all alone.
Challenges Calling for the "Hermeneutic of Grafting"
In the midst of these multivalent hermeneutical expressions of scripture, the question of ethics comes to the fore. In her 1998 inaugural address as the first woman President of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, issues a strong challenge to the ethical challenges of biblical scholarship. For her, true biblical criticism must be ethical, by which she meant there must be respect for the historical context of the text while at the same time respecting the variety of interpretative voices that come to it. Daniel Patte, building on Schüssler Fiorenza's challenge, calls Euro-American, adrocentric biblical critics to "repentance" by inviting them to come to the text with "ethical accountability," which realizes "the otherness of the other" and with "ethical responsibility" toward the multivalence of the text itself. Patte proposes that true biblical criticism can only flourish if it is approached through "androcritical multidimensional exegetical practice." In line with these proposals of Schüssler Fiorenza and Patte as well as of some other biblical scholars, the present author would like to submit that hearing scripture in African contexts, which is in reality, reading scripture with African spectacles, proposed in this chapter, is in partial fulfillment of addressing the ethics of biblical interpretation.
Context of Hearing Scripture
The context of hearing scripture, addressed in this chapter is the Ghanaian, West African context but more specifically, that of the Ewe peoples of the Volta Region, in Southeastern Ghana. However, most of what is presented in this chapter could apply to several contexts in which African peoples find themselves. The designation "African" here, as elsewhere, could be ambiguous due to the variety of peoples and cultural contexts that exist on the continent of Africa, south of the Great Sahara. It must be acknowledged upfront that some prior work may have been done on hearing scripture in African contexts and this is a further attempt to build them on as well as present some other ways in which scripture is heard in African contexts. The sub-heading of this chapter, which was purposely coined by the present author in 2004, is her own personal understanding of hearing (i.e., understanding) scripture in African contexts as, nothing other than, reading (interpreting) the scriptures with "African spectacles" which she designates as a "Hermeneutic of Grafting." Additionally, it must be acknowledged that even though the knowledge of God is deeply ingrained in the fabric of African society, the "formal" introduction to reading and hearing "Western" scripture in African contexts began with the inception of the missionary enterprise into Africa, in the 1800s, which culminated in the translation of the Bible into several African languages. The works of many great African theologians, some of which are referenced in this chapter, bear testimony to this fact. As a way of throwing more light on the proposed context of interpretation, some attempt is made to explain the topic and to unpack some of the terminologies employed as the chapter unfolds.
In order to address the issue of hearing scripture in African contexts: reading the Bible with African spectacles as a "Hermeneutic of Grafting," there is the need to unpack some of the terminologies used in the title of this chapter. To do this, three questions are posed here. (1) "What is meant by 'hearing scripture'?" (2) "What is meant by "African contexts?" and (3) "What is meant by "African Spectacles?" The use of the verb, "hearing" here implies that there must be a corresponding "speaking/ reading." It also implies that the speaking/reading, which results in hearing, must involve what is read, which this chapter refers to as "scripture." Implicit in this reading and hearing also is the idea that there must be a reader/s, that is, author/s or utterer/s and a hearer/s [recipient/s] of what is read and subsequently heard. Since reading and hearing cannot occur in a vacuum, the chapter has appropriately designated the hearers and the location of the heard and read text as "African contexts." The term "African" could be ambiguous but in this chapter it can be understood as the designation for "a native or inhabitant of Africa; a nearly neutral, slightly brownish-black, that is, darker than lava; an individual of immediate or remote African ancestry." These definitions, therefore, locate the hearers of scripture on the continent of Africa—the Sub-region South of the Great Sahara desert. In other words, "African" refers to the peoples of that particular geographic location in the world and everything indigenous or pertaining to them. A fourth question that can be asked here is, What is a "Hermeneutic of grafting?" Simply put, the African cultural context with its fully developed traditional religious system can be construed as a full grown tree into which pieces of the "Western" cultural scriptural tree are spliced. The outcome of this splicing, are completely different and unique fruits with the blended flavors of both trees in such a way that neither of the tastes supersedes the other.
The Thesis of the Chapter
The major aim in presenting how scripture is heard/read in African contexts entails the present author's personal experience of hearing/ reading scripture as history, prophecy and wisdom, which are three very crucial ways in which scripture is heard in African contexts. As an Ewe folk proverb puts it, Teka xoxoa nue wogbea yeyea doe. This proverb, literally means, A new rope is normally woven after the pattern of an old one. This proverb shows that hearing scripture in African contexts, though a unique phenomenon, is not completely divorced from the received tradition of hearing scripture in the traditio-historical critical and other newer voices of advocacy on the biblical interpretative scene. Moreover, since scriptural interpretation cannot be a bona fide property of any one community or individual, the Ewe proverb, Asi deka melea todzo o—The antelope cannot be held/caught by the horn single-handly, vividly captures this idea . Biblical interpretation, can, therefore be metaphorically, likened to the antelope's horn, which does not lend itself to a single method of interpretation. In other words, no single interpretation can capture the totality of the meaning of scripture nor can any single individual have the fullest handle on it.
It is worthy of mention here that one of the oldest ways in which scripture has been and is still heard in African contexts is through [her/ hi]stories. Among the many such [her/hi]stories, which include creation myths, genealogies, migration myths, warfare and conquest, kinships, kingships, agriculture, prophetic and wisdom utterances that have produced various pedagogical etiologies etc., to show how scripture is heard in African contexts, is a particularly intriguing story. This story seeks to explain why or how God, who was once close to earth and in direct communication with people, became associated with heaven above [emphasis mine] and why there no longer exists a more direct communication between God and humans. According to this mythological/ethiology, God originally, lived in the Sky, which was then very close to the Earth. God came down from time to time to visit with people and they communicated directly with God as often as they desired and vicé versa. Proper moral or ethical conduct was upheld since God could overhear and see what people were saying and doing and could give them directions when/where necessary. Later on, however, God had to move further away because an old woman, who was known for her notoriety in cooking her dinner very late at night, pounded her fufu with a very long pestle that struck the Sky every time she raised it from the mortar. Whenever, the pestle touched or struck the sky, it hit God's chin and disturbed God's sleep. God had to put up with this old woman's behavior for a long time. What was more disturbing to God was that after the old woman had finished eating her dinner, instead of washing her hands with soap and water, she would clean/wipe her soiled hands against the clean Sky [i.e., God's abode] and make it dirty. God's patience was highly tried by this behavior. As such God decided to move further away into the heavens. From then on, whenever people desired to communicate with God, they had to do so through an intermediary, who would climb into heaven and present the people's requests and bring back God's responses and instructions to the people.
The foregoing story is a little childhood mythological/etiological story about why/how God now supposedly dwells in heaven above and why God and humans no longer communicate directly. This story seems to provide clues to some very deep theological concepts ingrained not only in the fabric of the cultural context of African peoples but also in scripture. It could be likened to various instances in scripture where God's patience had been tried and God had seemingly given up on human beings but had always "repented" and provided a means for human beings to reunite with God. Though it is not the intention here to go into historical, source, literary or other criticism of the history of Israel, this story provides some hints into the interpretation of "God's word" since God no longer communicates directly with people. Now that God has moved far away, according to the above story, the question is "How do we hear God's word?" Perhaps, the above story provides a simple answer, with a hint about how scripture is heard, which is, through intermediaries. For the present author, the intermediaries, which perform the duty of taking the people's requests to God and bringing responses back to them, can be likened to the multivalent/pluralistic/polyphonic theologies/hermeneutics, which have continued to characterize the interpretation or hearing and reading of scripture in various contexts, including the African cultural context, in which mythological/etiological stories come in handy.
As mentioned earlier in this chapter, several hermeneutical winds have been blowing across the field of biblical studies, in Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, among Feminists, Womanists and other minorities of various orientations and of course, also in Africa, South of the Sahara. The source of these winds, borders on the appropriate ways of doing theology, through the meaningful interpretation of scripture. As Krister Stendahl appropriately, posits, theology involves "what it meant" and "what it means" by which he means proper theology involves a descriptive approach to the history of the biblical text as well as an interpretation of the text, to make it meaningful in today's contemporary contexts. In agreement with Stendahl's position, any attempt to address the topic of this chapter must endeavor to follow meaningful ways of doing theology, which involve the interpretation/exegesis of scripture from the perspective or worldview point of "receiving" peoples including African peoples, in their contemporary contexts. Bernhard Anderson, towing a similar line of argument as Stendahl, asserts that "Theology is both "descriptive and constructive." As such, hearing scripture in any context has to be an understanding and appropriation of the biblical message as it impinges on today's contemporary needs. Frederick Tiffany and Sharon Ringe also posit that biblical interpretation must begin at "home, with attention to the immediate contemporary environment in which the biblical text is encountered." In effect, context plays an indispensable role in the interpretation of scripture. This point is further emphasized in the introduction to Text in Context: Essays by Members of the Society of Old Testament Study. According to this source, "The interpretation of the text takes place in the interaction between the text and the interpretative community, a community which may or may not have religious commitments, or may be characterized by different political or ethical concerns." It follows, therefore, that hearing scripture in Africa must begin from the African interpretative or cultural context.
Excerpted from AFRICAN THEOLOGY/IES: A CONTEMPORARY MOSAICAL APPROACH by DOROTHY BEA AKOTO-ABUTIATE. Copyright © 2014 [Durable] Dorothy BEA Akoto-Abutiate. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
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Table of Contents
What Is A "Contemporary Mosaical Approach?", xiii,
Part One: The Bible And Culture,
Chapter One: Hearing Scripture In African Contexts: A Hermeneutic Of Grafting, 2,
Chapter Two: Marriage In The Bible: "What If The Woman Does Not Consent To Follow Me To This Land, Shall I Then Take Your Son Back To The Land From Which You Came?" (Genesis 24:5), 26,
Chapter Three: Women And Health In Ghana And The "Trokosi" Practice: An Issue Of Women's And Children's Rights, 56,
Part Two: Hermeneutics,
Chapter Four: The Book Of Proverbs And Its Relationship To African-Ewe Proverbial Communication, 71,
Chapter Five: Can These Bones Live? Re-Reading Ezekiel 37:1-14 In The Hiv/Aids Context, 91,
Chapter Six: A Commentary On The Book Of Esther In The Africana Context, 104,
Part Three: General Themes—Issues Of Gender, Missiology And The Contemporary Mosaical Approach To Christianity,
Chapter Seven: Gender In Missions—The Possibility Of A Permanent Agenda, 112,
Chapter Eight: Church And State: A Contemporary Understanding Of The Book Of Joel, 125,
Chapter Nine: Christianity In Ghana: Contemporary Mosaical Approaches, 145,
List Of Abbreviations, 151,
Selected Bibliography, 153,