Bible and Culture in African Christianity

By Ezeogu, Ernest M. | International Review of Mission, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Bible and Culture in African Christianity


Ezeogu, Ernest M., International Review of Mission


Introduction

My memories of my first contact with the Bible go back to my days as a toddler in a typical Nigerian Igbo village. My father could not read or write, yet he owned a Bible. In fact, he owned the only Bible in the village, an enormous red-edged book. Nobody ever read this Bible. It was not acquired to be read like ordinary books. My father's Bible was carefully wrapped in white cloth and kept under lock and key in a wooden cabinet in which my father kept things he particularly treasured. Whenever you saw him open the cabinet and bring out the Bible, you knew there was to be a big palaver in the village: some kind of dispute was defying the ingenuity of the village elders which could only be settled by one of the contending parties swearing an oath. Taking an oath on my father's Bible was the most reliable way of solving such protracted disputes. For those first generation Christians, then, this Bible had replaced the sacred staff (ofo) of the traditional religion as an object for oath taking, thanks to the example of colonial court-room formalities.

This bizarre personal recollection is meant as an invitation to leave familiar territory. It can be compared to the "once upon a time" openings of traditional folk tales, and I hope it serves to prepare you to follow me to the world of first and second generation Christianity as it is to be found in present-day Africa.(1)

Africa is on record as the continent with the highest numerical Christian growth rate in the world.(2) And the Bible has been identified as "a major contributor" to this phenomenal growth.(3) The Bible is certainly very much valued and used by African Christians. Given the oral tradition that forms the background of African Christians, and given the literary tradition that the Bible represents, the question of the relationship between the Bible and culture in African Christianity becomes an intriguing one. How is the Bible used in the cultural environment of Africa by recent-generation African Christians? Here we shall not content ourselves with simply describing the present situation of the interaction of Bible and culture in Africa. We need to go further and ask more probing and critical questions with the aim of assessing the appropriateness of the relationship we discover. If we find the present model of the relationship between the Bible and culture in African Christianity to be inadequate, as well we may, then we will be compelled to suggest another model which we believe will prove more appropriate for the realization of the mission of African Christianity.

Definition of Terms

St Louis University historian Thomas P. Neill is quoted as saying, "How can you have a good fight if you define your terms?"(4) Since the purpose of this paper is to provoke not a good fight but a good reflection, it might be necessary to offer a working definition of some of the main terms utilized in this article.

Bible

The term "Bible" in this article is used in two closely related yet distinct ways: to refer to the "book" as well as to the "message". As book, suffice it to say that it refers to the books of the Old and New Testaments held by Christians as the inspired Word of God.(5) As message, it refers to the teaching to be found in this collection of books, and as such could be synonymous with the terms "gospel," "good news," "biblical tradition," "biblical revelation," etc.

Culture

To expect a human person to define culture is like expecting a fish to define the water in which it lives. For, "As water is to the fish, so culture is to the human person."(6) We are best served by a broad description of this all-encompassing reality, such as the one proposed by Orthodox Archbishop of Albania, Anastasios Yannoulatos, who has isolated seven "constant elements" found in every culture. These are:

formation of a system of contact, of a code of understanding, that is of a language;

solutions given to the very first needs for humankind's survival, concerning shelter and maintenance, that is, developing of an elementary technical skill and economics;

regulation of the living together of the basic human unity, many-woman, for the perpetuation of the human species;

organization of a clan, race, nation, which means a regulation of social relations;

definition of what is good or bad, in other words, making social rules;

artistic expressions of the beliefs and problematics of the individual and of society;

experience of the "Holy," of what is beyond everyday reality, through a form of religious beliefs. …

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