Reading the Bible in the Global South

Article excerpt

In recent years, Christian denominations worldwide have been deeply divided over issues of gender, sexual morality, and homosexuality, and gatherings of the worldwide Anglican Communion have been particularly contentious. On one occasion, two bishops were participating in a Bible study, one an African Anglican, the other a U.S. Episcopalian. As the hours went by, tempers frayed as the African expressed his confidence in the clear words of Scripture, while the American stressed the need to interpret the Bible in the light of contemporary scholarship. Eventually, the African bishop asked in exasperation, "If you don't believe the Scripture, why did you bring it to us in the first place?" As worldwide Anglican tensions have escalated since 2003, attitudes to biblical authority have proved increasingly divisive. Kenyan archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi has even declared, "Our understanding of the Bible is different from theirs. We are two different churches."

Though Anglicanism is an important tradition, claiming some 80 million adherents worldwide, it accounts for only 4 percent of all Christians. The kind of split that we have seen in the Anglican Church has emerged across denominations, especially in matters of gender and sexuality. Other churches have watched Anglican conflicts with some alarm, fearing that perhaps they might be getting a foretaste of future debates among Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and, perhaps someday, even Roman Catholics. Similar disputes surface not just in international meetings but also in North American religious communities with large immigrant populations.

North vs. South

The divisions churches have experienced tend to fall along lines of what has come to be referred to as North and South, with Christians in the generally richer northern countries favoring a liberal interpretation of Scripture, and those in the generally poorer South maintaining a more conservative Christianity and traditional view of Scripture. We often encounter conservative themes in the religious thought of African and Asian Christians, specifically in their attitudes toward the Bible. They often include a much greater respect for the authority of Scripture, especially in matters of morality; a willingness to accept the Bible as an inspired text and a tendency to literalism; a special interest in supernatural elements of Scripture, such as miracles, visions, and healings; a belief in the continuing power of prophecy; and a veneration for the Old Testament, which is treated as equally authoritative as the New. Biblical traditionalism and literalism are still more marked in the independent churches and in denominations rooted in the Pentecostal tradition, but similar currents are also found among Roman Catholics. Even a cursory acquaintance with African or Asian Christianity reveals the pervasive importance it gives to the Bible and biblical stories.

I am not proposing a simple kind of geographic determinism that shapes religious belief. We can hardly speak of how all Africans approach a given topic, any more than we can speak for all Europeans on a given point: Scots may think one thing, Sicilians quite another. Nor are these societies themselves in any sense uniform: Scots laborers presumably read one way, Scots professors another. Attitudes toward biblical interpretation and authority follow no neat North-South pattern. We find "Southern" expressions in the North in the form of charismatic, fundamentalist, and deeply traditionalist belief, while liberals and "Northern"-style feminists are by no means unknown in even the most fervently traditional-minded African and Asian churches. Also, despite all the financial difficulties faced particularly by African universities, global South scholars form a distinguished part of the global community of biblical learning. They read and publish in the mainstream journals of Europe and North America and reinforce international ties at conferences and seminars. …