Jesus Imandars and Christ Bhaktas: Report from Two Field Studies of Interreligious Hermeneutics and Identity in Globalized Christianity

Article excerpt

The emergence of numerous indigenous forms of Christianity as a consequence of its globalization is a wellknown and widely studied phenomenon in missiology. A debate concerning criteria for discerning authentic incultura tion/ contextualization and illegitimate syncretism has accompanied these studies right from the start and has remained a fundamental concern among missiologists. This debate is not surprising, for the discussion of contextualization and syncretism occurs exactly where faith and culture interact. Despite the continuing discussion, however, no common theoretical approach to syncretism exists, and no criteria for authentic inculturation or contextualization have yet been agreed upon.1

This article presents the results of two field studies of the interaction between faith and culture in the lives of believers in Jesus Christ from a Muslim background in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and from a Hindu background in Chennai (formerly Madras), Tamil Nadu, India.2 The results suggest that we should not be hasty in judging indigenous forms of Christianity as either authentic contextualization or illegitimate syncretism but, rather, should examine carefully the interreligious hermeneutics at work. Such a use of interreligious hermeneutics could provide the theoretical basis necessary for theological and missiological discussion of the relation between Christianity and other religious traditions. I conclude by discussing how empirical studies might inform missiological perspectives on Christian identity and its relation to other religious traditions in our globalized world.

Jesus Imandars in Dhaka, Bangladesh

As an independent nation since 1971, Bangladesh in its cultural and social life continues to be deeply influenced by Islam, which is the religion of more than 85 percent of its population. While there are 12 percent Hindus and 0.6 percent Buddhists, Christians number only 0.3 percent of the approximately 150 million Bangladeshis.3 Although the majority of Christians are converts from Hinduism, Islamic culture is the background for Christianity in Bangladesh.

During my fieldwork in Dhaka, I established acquaintance with a number of Bangladeshi men and some women from Muslim background who attended small groups of Isa imandars, or "those faithful to Jesus." The groups, which the imandars termed jama'at (fellowship), met in private homes and functioned as gatherings for worship, prayer, sermons, and social interaction. In this condensed report, I focus on their liturgy, religious ideal and identity, and theological reflection. Taken together, these three areas provide a rough outline of what it means to be an imandar (literally, "faithful [one]").

Jama'at liturgy. A typical meeting in Mehrab's jama'at took place in his office, which was connected to his apartment. On Fridays a small signboard announcing "Jama'at" was placed on the front door; all furniture was removed, and mats covered the office floor. The meeting started in the late afternoon as the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the houses across the small street. As members of the jama'at arrived, each was handed a copy of the Kitab ul Mughaldesh (the Bible in Musalmani Bengali translation) and a homemade collection of Jstfe-songs. After five or six imandars had gathered, Mehrab welcomed everyone and announced a song, either a translation of a classic Western hymn or a local composition drawing heavily upon the Bangladeshi style of music known as baulgan (folk song) . In principle women were welcome but in reality their attendance was limited to the women living in the household where the meeting took place. This means that the jama'at groups in practice tended to follow the somewhat patriarchic religious culture in Bangladesh. Reading, especially recitation of long passages in the Kitab ul Mughaldesh, was part of every meeting. The Zabur (the Book of Psalms) and the apostolic letters were often recited. In veneration of the Holy Book it was placed on a wooden bookstand in front of every imandar. …