Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Theology matters: The bane of extreme biblicism and reading Scripture literalistically

In his book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, Philip Jenkins trumpeted the rise of a global (South) Christianity, a theme that follows from his previous book The Next Christendom. For those who think that Christianity is growing alive and well and thriving in the non-Western hemisphere, one would be sadly disappointed. The number of "professing churches and Christians" do continue to grow exponentially. But unless one were to derive encouragement from mere numbers of professors of the faith, instead of actually counting the number who confess the one catholic (small "c") and apostolic faith, one is hard pressed to find much to be encouraged in Jenkins' blowing of the trumpet of a "southern" Christian revival.

In this post, I would just like to comment on the extreme Biblicism and literalistic reading of Scripture of the indigenous African churches as recounted by Jenkins. Jenkins claimed that the Global South is especially tuned towards the world of the Old Testament, which is not surprising since the context of the Old and New Testaments is that of pre-modern society. He shows how the indigenous African Christians appropriate the entire Old Testament and contextualized it as African theology and African experience. Now, having first hand experience of famine, drought and agricultural imagery is one thing. What Jenkins recounts however is the African version of Anglo-Israelism. The Old Testament is made relevant in some African Christian circles even to the extent of contextualizing the Levitical sacrifices and the kosher food laws! The theocracy that is Israel complete with blessings and curses is appropriated by Africans. In page 81, Jenkins even recount a sermon in Malawi that speaks of the AIDS epidemic as the last plague sent by God because "God is fed up with our sins" when people "don't change their bad behavior"! Contemporary African prophets litter the African religious landscape, where, just like the Old Testament, such "prophets" receive direct revelation from God for the people.

There is so many things wrong with the theological mess in African theology. Of course, it could be due to involuntary ignorance and probably is. Yet, it is known that the emergence of these "third-world theologies" as a reaction against so-called "western theologies" is a willful rejection of all things considered "colonial" in origins. Whatever the mitigating factors, it is the case that the emergence of "third-world theologies" is a willful decision of indigenous people that they know more about the Scriptures than the "white man" after they have read parts of it. In other words, pride and unteachability surely lies at the root of part of the problem within indigenous churches.

Ultimately, the reason why theology is important is because theology works itself out in real life. Theology matters. Here, the literalistic hermeneutic of the African indigenous churches that are recounted by Jenkins will bear terrible fruit. Since we know from Scripture that the blessings and curses belong to the Mosaic Covenant and theocratic Israel, it does not apply in the same way to any African nation. Imagine the amount of needless guilty and fear when a natural disaster affects the country. Preachers would be (mis)reading providence to claim that the natural disaster must be due to some great national sin, real or imagined. But perhaps for example a spell of famine is purely natural due to failure to diversify crops to protect from pestilence, or something to that effect, such a false interpretation of providence might possibly result in false guilt. Or take the example of the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps, the reason why AIDS is such an epidemic is because sexual immorality is rampant. After all, there are only two main ways HIV is transmitted: blood (especially transfusion or sharing needles), and sex. It might be God's judgment on sexual immorality, but it is a false reading of providence to think that it is the last plague (like the last plague on the Egyptians) because God is "fed up with our sins"!

To put words into the mouth of God is to become a false prophet. To interpret the Scriptures falsely is to make God into a liar. So why is it that such an unbiblical hermeneutic in the African churches is celebrated by Jenkins? Theology matters, and all such hyper-spiritualization does more harm to the faith than good. It might be nice to see an angel on every blade of grass and a demon hiding behind every rock, but there are consequences for such false theology. What does it profit the Church when the African Christians are merely adding a Christian fa├žade to their former animistic African outlook? What would happen when those reared in extreme spiritualism meet the real world? Will "Christianity" just become the successor to the African medicine man? The problems are too many. How is Christ exalted when those who claim to be His followers create their own "Christianity" which leads people astray, all in the name of contextualization? Is Christ glorified when "believers" resurrect the Levitical sacrifices, the food laws and the Saturday Sabbath? How would Paul have reacted to such, knowing what he thought of the Galatian Judaizers?

Theology matters! Reading Scripture literalistically might feel native and "African," but it is still wrong. The sheep are misled, scattered, all because some people think they know better than the one catholic, apostolic church and just go and invent their own "Third World theology."

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